The (purposely) forgotten holiday

Rabbi Berel Wein

By Rabbi Berel Wein

Published June 10, 2016

The (purposely) forgotten holiday

As Shavuos draws near, it is traditional to think about the importance and impact of this shortest of the three major festivals of the Jewish calendar year.

Unfortunately, in the Diaspora, with the exception of the devotedly observant community, Shavuos is a forgotten holiday.

I remember that as a lawyer in Chicago over thirty-five years ago, I attempted to obtain a new date for a trial in which I was representing my client and the Jewish judge, a scion of a great Eastern European rabbinic family, asked me the reason for my request.

I told him that the original trial date was to fall on the holiday of Shavuos and as such I would not be able to attend court that day. He sneered at me: "Counselor, there is no such Jewish holiday!" So great is the alienation and assimilation of much of Diaspora Jewry, that his ignorant opinion will find many echoes in the secular Jewish society.

Yet, it is the Shavuos holiday that is the backbone of all Jewish life and vitality.

According to Jewish tradition and the Talmud, Shavuos marks the anniversary date of the Revelation at Sinai and the granting of the Torah to the people of Israel. The Torah itself phrases it thusly: "Today you have become a nation!" The nationality of the Jews is founded upon its shared experience of receiving the Torah at Sinai thirty three hundred and nineteen years ago. This is the import of the famous statement by Saadya Gaon ( d. 942) that our "our nation is a nation only by virtue of the Torah."

Shavuos is the uniquely Jewish holiday. It does not represent the universal ideal of freedom as does Passover, nor is it a harbinger of all human happiness, prosperity and bountiful harvest, all of which characterize the Succos holiday. It stands in splendid isolation as a uniquely Jewish event that attests to our role in society and civilization, as the people who accepted the Torah when others refused.

It is therefore difficult to be assimilated and celebrate Shavuos. Shavuos prevents assimilation by reminding us of the event that is baked deep into the DNA of the Jewish people — the revelation at Sinai.

Shavuos is therefore not just a commemoration of a historical date but rather it poses the challenge of defining Jewish nationhood and of its relation to each and every one of us. Because of this challenging aspect of the holiday, it is easy (though painful) to understand why Shavuos just does not exist for so many Jews. It is much easier on one's mind and conscience to simply ignore and then even deny its existence.

There are certain questions that have remained constant in Jewish life over the millennia. "Who is a Jew?" "Why be Jewish?" "Why marry Jewish?" and "Why all of the fuss, anger, hatred and jealousy in the world over the Jews?" are some of these basic age-old questions. Ignoring Shavuos and what it represents allows for seemingly easy answers and evasions of these questions. But all of those answers have never yet been able to stand the test of time and circumstance.

Forgetting Shavuos has always led to spiritually dire personal and national consequences The great Rabbi Yosef of the times of the Babylonian Talmud celebrated Shavuos with great enthusiasm, saying "if it were not for this day of Shavuos, I would not feel chosen and unique, for many Yosefs can be found in the market square."

This is certainly true of the Jewish people generally. If it were not for Shavuos we would not be a special people, let alone "a light unto the nations of the world." Shavuos therefore becomes our reason for existence, the justification of our intense role in the development of a better and more civilized world. Shavuos therefore demands some sort of mental and spiritual preparation to be truly appreciated.

Shavuos begins this year at nightfall on June 11. Now would be a good time to start thinking about it and its personal relevance to one's life and family.

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JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is a Jewish historian, author and international lecturer.