Shavuot: Understanding The Purpose of Our Freedom
Since the second night of Passover, we have been counting the days of the Omer, which will culminate in the upcoming festival of Shavuot. In a certain way, we cannot help but feel that Shavuot is the completion of the festival of Passover. The Talmudic name for Shavuot – Atzeret – is the name given to the eighth day of Sukkot and alludes to the fact that Shavuot can be defined as the eighth day of Passover (which is, biblically, a seven-day festival).
And while the second and eighth days of Sukkot are seven days apart, the amount of time between Passover and Shavuot is seven times that amount, or the 49 days of the Omer. The festivals of Passover and Shavuot are inextricably linked, as the Torah lists no specific date on which Shavuot is to be observed; we are simply told to count 49 days from Passover.
But the connection between these two holidays goes far beyond mathematics. Consider the significance of Passover – the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. As generations did before us, we observe the essence of Passover when we personally experience the exodus, when we break loose from the yoke of slavery and flee from danger. Sometimes, it is impossible for one to stay where he is – it is urgent that he extricate himself from peril. But even in the intense element of deliverance, his escape – like any other – gives rise to a fundamental question: where does one go from here? The Passover exodus contains a negation of the past and the desire to move away from it, but it does not answer the question of purpose.
Deliverance, per se, is no more than casting off one’s shackles. It leads, therefore, to quandaries, questions and confusion. Freedom as a positive concept calls for a personality with a will of its own. A person who escapes from captivity and returns home is indeed free, but a person who flees without knowing where to and without any specific goal in mind has not attained freedom – only the denial of his slavery.
Shavuot, which is referred to as “the time of giving of our Torah,” provides the answer to the question raised by the festival of Passover – the ultimate purpose of the Exodus. Passover represents exodus, an escape from; Shavuot is the movement towards, a route leading to a goal. The giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai is the conclusion of deliverance, that which gives it its fullest meaning.
The Torah, when describing the Tablets of the Law, says that the writing was harut al ha-luhot, “graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). On this verse our Sages comment: “Do not say ‘harut [graven] al ha-luhot‘ but rather ‘herut [freedom] al ha-luhot.’ ” The Tablets of the Law are the very source of the freedom that can only be attained after being redeemed from slavery.
This explanation is not a metaphysical rendering of the events; it is explicitly stated in the Torah, in the words of the Almighty to Moses after the revelation in the burning bush. When Moses argues with God about his mission, God replies (Exodus 3:12): “And this shall be the sign for you that I have sent you: when you will have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain.”
In other words, God’s revelation to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai and their subsequent worship of Him are what infuse meaning into the miracles performed in Egypt. Those miracles, and even the Exodus itself, are an incomplete message. When God tells Moses that He wants to deliver the Jewish people so that they can worship Him in the desert, it is not a pretext for the Exodus. It is the most real answer, the entire essence of the Exodus itself.
Passover, then, is a festival without a clear ending. It receives its spiritual significance from the Torah given seven weeks later, on Shavuot. The gap of time between these two festivals symbolizes the wandering and the search, the transition from a negative reality of physical labor – and nowadays, of spiritual enslavement – to an essential quest for the meaning of that freedom. On Shavuot we receive the answer and come to understand the reason for the Exodus. Only then do these two festivals become one unit at whose core is the Jew searching for his raison d’être. Such a person cannot be content with the mere negation of his existing reality. He must strive to learn his true purpose through the answer that was revealed to us at Mount Sinai.