Shavuot, “the feast of weeks”, unlike all of our other festivals, is given no calendrical date; rather, we arrive at this holiday by counting “seven full weeks” from a particular starting time. But even the starting time is ambiguous: “From the day after the Sabbath”. Which Sabbath? And why is there a reference to a Sabbath at all? The previous passage in the Torah described Pesach, not the Sabbath. There has been much historical debate over this issue where some understood “the Sabbath” to mean the first day of Pesach (15 Nisan) and others took the text literally and counted from Sunday, the day after the Sabbath. Today we follow the first calculation, starting the counting after the first day of Passover.
There is a strong Jewish tradition that ties Shavuot to “the time of the giving of the Torah” at Mount Sinai, and the covenant between the Israelites and G-d. But that connection is not made in the Torah itself. The only description in the Torah about Shavuot calls it the “Feast of the Harvest”, and the “Day of First Fruits”. The description of this event in the Torah includes the date “In the third month after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt…”(Ex. 19: 1). Since Shavuot is the only festival in the third month, the connection was made in the oral tradition.
So how do these two ideas merge into a lesson we can draw from. Let’s reflect, for a moment, on viewing Shavuot as the anniversary of the moment described in the book of Exodus when God revealed himself to the Israelites at Mount Sinai and made a covenant with them. The Torah was given “in the wilderness”, it was not tied to a particular place. Even though our homeland is eretz yisrael, the Torah was not given there, and from this we learn that the Torah can and should be applied anywhere and everywhere.
When Jews were stripped of their land, their homes, their liberties, Jewish communities still had a binding document of social responsibility. We did not wait for someone (or a government) to give rights and freedoms. Historically, we created our own: we built our own schools, our own welfare systems for the sick and poor, loan societies, and a myriad of communal support systems. G-d gave us the responsibility to build societies predicated on justice and compassion, to honor the image of G-d with which we were endowed. G-d gave us this mandate in the desert so that we would fundamentally understand that it had to apply anywhere and everywhere. In order for this to translate into reality, however, we had to agree to become partners with G-d, and apply this collective responsibility into all of our actions, fulfilling our end of the covenant from Mount Sinai.
A beautiful sentiment about how we have ascribed meaning to Shavuot, but how does it tie back to our Biblical connection to this holiday? “From the day after the Sabbath” we are commanded to count to reach the Feast of Weeks and Feast of First Fruits and of the harvest. What does Shabbat have to do with Shavuot? What does Shabbat commemorate? It is the remembrance, when we are commanded to keep the day that G-d rested from his creation of the world. When we reflect on the magnificence of G-d’s creations, how blessed we are to be a part of it, and to reflect on our role. Shabbat is the time when we connect with G-d on the purpose and meaning of creation. It is our connection to our past and our perspective for our future. How are we going to make a difference? What is our responsibility to ourselves, our families, our communities, the world? The process of transforming these thoughts into actions can be related to the “counting of the weeks” from being thrust into a wilderness from Pesach to the acceptance of a collective, social, responsibility at Shavuot, and how we fulfill our end of the Covenant from Sinai.
“We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard. ‘Someone else's physical needs are my spiritual obligation’, a Jewish mystic taught. The truths of religion are exalted, but its duties are close at hand. We know God less by contemplation than by emulation. The choice is not between ‘faith’ and ‘deeds’, for it is by our deeds that we express our faith and make it real in the life of others and the world.”
[Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, pg. 5].