Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was asked to explain why Shavuot is also referred to as Atzeret, even though the Torah only uses the term Atzeret in association with Shemini Atzeret, not Shavuot. He offered three explanations. First, all festivals have specific practical mitzvah observances associated with their celebrations, beyond the mere forbiddance of labor on Yom Tov. On Pesach we eat matzah and drink four cups of wine; on Sukkot we dwell in the Sukkah and take daled minim, whereas on Shavuot the only actual characteristic of Yom Tov is the cessation of work. Thus, Shavuot is known as Atzeret, signifying its only form of Yom Tov. Moreover, explained the Kedushat Levi, the names of all Yamim Tovim reflect a specific historical event commemorated in subsequent generations in a religious sense.
Shavuot, however, is not a name reflecting any historical event, rather, the completion of the mitzvah of counting Sefirat HaOmer. But why would one celebrate a Yom Tov signifying an end? It would seem more logical to celebrate and rejoice in anticipation of fulfilling a mitzvah, rather than its completion. Isn’t this, after all, the reason for reciting the blessing of Shehecheyanu prior to observing a mitzvah, which we have not had the opportunity to experience for an extended period of time! Judaism teaches, however, that joy and religious ecstasy emanate from a sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. For the religious and learned Jew, no greater joy and celebration exists than that of a siyum; celebrating the privilege and opportunity in having shared and completed a significant part of Torah. This Jewish expression of joy is unique, however, in that it marks not merely the sense of past accomplishment but also the anxieties of finality, the fears of a point of termination. Thus, the ardent and committed student of Torah proclaims, Hadran alach – “I shall return to you.” For the genuine Jew wants not merely to give vent to the joys of yesterday, but also to the hopes of tomorrow. It’s frightening to contemplate an end! This, then, is the essence of the Shavuot-Atzeret experience.
Rashi comments that it is Shemini Atzeret that zeroes in on the inner need to linger, to continue the joys of celebration and not allow them to come to an abrupt ending – she’kashe alai pe’ridatchem. Shavuot marks the completion of the mitzvah of counting the Omer. Atzeret induces us to continue the effect of the goals towards which we counted.
Finally, says the Kedushat Levi, when a Jew experiences a religious awakening and reaches a spiritual elevation, there is an inner urge to translate the love, ecstasy, and yearning into practical application. The Ramban interprets the verse in the Song of Songs: Mah tairu u’mah teoreru et ha’ahava ad shetechpatz –“That you awaken not, nor stir up love, until it pleases,” to mean that free and unfettered love must find a mode of practical expression. One cannot love or worship G-d theoretically. Religious inspiration and exultation demand ad shetechpatz; it calls for a creation of a chefetz, a vessel through which to express and manifest innermost feelings and emotions. The Jews at Sinai obviously reached these highest levels of religious exultation and fervor, but did not as yet possess any practical means of expression, other than the fulfillment of the command to hold back and refrain from “touching the mountain.” Thus the Yom Tov is known as Atzeret, recalling the one and only commandment, the only “vessel” now available to translate their deep and exulted religious feelings.
The three reasons given by Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev as to why Shavuot is referred to as Atzeret may also serve as three approaches to the recitation and concept of Yizkor. There are those who view the past merely as history, with no lessons or implications for the present or future. The past is not merely gone, but it has very little relevance for the here and now. Thus, there are Jews for whom tearing k’riah, sitting shiva, and observing the Halachic and historical modes of mourning are archaic. For them, the past is ancient history with no practical way of expression. Their Jewish past is over; it ceased with the passing of past generations. It is abstract. It has no practical methods of contemporary expression.
Then there are Jews who are able to find a more meaningful, yet incomplete method of reciting Yizkor, of remembering the past. Remembering the past brings back warm and tender feelings and sentiments, but only up to a point. That point is their refusal to allow the past to affect their present or future. These are Jews who respect the past, study and analyze it, do research and publish studies and journals about the world of our fathers, the shtetl, the world of yesterday. These are Jews reciting Yizkor describing and recalling a siyum, unable to proclaim Hadran halach, “I shall return to you.” The passing of parents and grandparents is an abrupt end, without anxieties of kashe alai peridatchem – without the inducement to continue the legacy of those who taught us how to count.
The only genuine and authentic method of reciting Yizkor is to be able to translate memories, emotions, and love of the past into new realities. Solomon exclaimed: Why awaken or rouse the love, unless you are willing to create a new vessel to contain it? Recalling the past is meaningful only when one is able to transfer the ahavah into a new chefetz. Genuine and credible tears, memories, and emotions are an acknowledgement that the present has only been made possible because of its connection with the past, and that any future must likewise be connected with the present. Mourning and recalling those who preceded us, with their love and dedication, must include an acknowledgement that our present is not only their past, but also the future of the next generation.
The past, then, is the key to our future.