The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
– William Faulkner
We Jews are a people of memories. Our past defines who we are. The past infuses our religious lives with context, purpose and meaning. How could we be if not for knowing how we were?
Our festivals and yamim tovim speak to our relationship with our past in unique and powerful ways. However, even in this uniqueness, Shavuot stands out.
Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offered three explanations as to why Shavuot is also referred to as Atzeret, even though the Torah only uses the term Atzeret in association with the festival of Shemini Atzeret, not Shavuot. First, while labor is forbidden on all yamim tovim, festivals have specific practical mitzvah observances associated with their celebration. On Pesach, we eat matzah and drink four cups of wine. On Sukkot, we dwell in the sukkah and take the daled minim. But on Shavuot only the cessation of work is commanded. Thus, Shavuot is known as Atzeret, signifying its only form of yom tov.
The Kedushat Levi further explained that the names of all Yamim Tovim reflect a specific historical event to be commemorated in subsequent generations in a religious sense. Shavuot, however, is not a name reflecting any historical event. It is an identifier of time, the completion of the mitzvah of counting Sefirat Ha’Omer (the counting of the Omer). Celebrating a “conclusion” seems at odds with Jewish practice. We celebrate in anticipation of coming celebrations, of the mitzvot to be fulfilled more than those already fulfilled. Our joyous anticipation is the reason for reciting the shehecheyanu (blessing that gives thanks for new and unusual experiences) prior to observing a mitzvah rather than at its conclusion.
Even so, Judaism teaches that joy and religious ecstasy are derived from accomplishment and fulfillment. For the religious and learned Jew, there is no greater joy than the joy found in celebrating a siyum; celebrating the privilege and opportunity in having completed a significant part of Torah. The siyum is not unbridled celebration, however. Although it marks completed accomplishment, it does so with full awareness of the anxieties of finality. We fear completion as much as we celebrate it. Imagine then the joy and trepidation that fills us as we anticipate the soon-to-be celebrated Siyum HaShas! No ordinary siyum this is. No. The Shas is completed only once in seven years! Such a culmination! And yet… seven years hence, will I be able to rejoice once again? We celebrate endings even as we long for beginnings. As the committed student of Torah proclaims, “hadran alach” – “I shall return to you.”
This, then, is the essence of the Shavuot Atzeret experience. Rashi comments that it is Shemini Atzeret that focuses on our need to linger, to continue the joys of celebration rather than allow them to come to an abrupt ending – shekashe alai peridatchem. 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.
When the Kedushat Levi concludes that when a Jew experiences a religious awakening and reaches a spiritual elevation, he embraces an inner urge to translate the love, ecstasy, and yearning into practical application, he is in accord with the Ramban.
The Ramban interprets the verse in the Song of Songs, “Mah tairu umah teoreru et ha’avah ad shetechpatz” – “That you awaken not, nor stir up love, until it pleases” – to mean that free and unfettered love is mere “sound and fury” unless it finds a mode of practical expression. In the same way, one cannot love or worship G-d in theory. Religious inspiration and exultation demand ad shetechpatz. Such a religious fervor calls for the creation of chefetz, keli, a vessel through which to express and manifest these 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 negative 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 correspond powerfully to three explanations of that great expression of remembering, the recitation of Yizkor (memorial prayer).
There are those who view the past merely as history, as dead. To them, the past has no valuable lessons or implications to impart for the present or future. For them, the past is not merely past, but it is valueless for the here and now. Jews who cling to this sense of the past find no meaning in rituals of mourning. For them, tearing k’riah, sitting shiva, and observing the halachic modes of mourning are archaic. For them, the past is ancient history which has no meaningful or practical expression. Their Jewish past is over and gone, it ceased with the passing of parents or grandparents. It is abstract, it has no practical methods of contemporary expression.
Then there are those Jews who are able to find a more meaningful, yet incomplete method of reciting Yizkor, of remembering the past. For them, recalling the past evokes warm and tender feelings and sentiments, but those emotions affect them only to a point. They are willing to “visit” the past, but they will not allow the past to “visit” the present. They refuse to allow the past to affect their present or future. These are Jews who respect the past, study and analyze it, do research and issue studies and journals about the world of our fathers, the shtetl, the world of yesteryear.
These are Jews reciting Yizkor describing and recalling a siyum, but who are unable to proclaim “hadran alach,” “I shall return to you.” The passing of grandparents and parents is an abrupt end, without anxieties of kasheh alai peridatchem – without the inducement to continue the effects and legacy of those who taught us.
Then there is the third way, the only genuine and authentic method of reciting Yizkor. This way is to be able to translate and transform memories, emotions, and past love 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 acknowledgment 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 acknowledgment 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.
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.