We just concluded the Yom Tov, the Jewish Holy Day, which often gets lost in the mix.
A funny thing happened to me a few days before. Someone who is not Jewish asked me to come to a meeting on the second day of the festival. I wrote back saying I could not attend because it was the Pentecost. I used that term thinking that, if I used the Hebrew, he would not know what I meant. He wrote back and wished me a “Happy Shavuot!”
So, while some do know of Shavuot, it is not on the Jewish radar screen to the same extent as Chanukah, Purim or other major celebrations such as Pesach and Sukkot.
There is an interesting nuance to Shavuot that speaks volumes about Judaism as a faith-based way of life. It is best conveyed through a fascinating comment in the Talmud regarding Shavuot. We begin with the simple observation that Jewish festivals, including the three pilgrimage festivals, are, in the words of the Torah, FOR YOU. These are powerful, impactful words, establishing that these days are celebrations that are for us at the same time as they are for God. In the famous words of the Talmud, half for God, half for us.
In other words, God wants us to celebrate. The fact that we eat, meaningfully, on these days, is therefore the fulfilment of a biblical mandate.
There is a debate in the Talmud as to how to fulfil this 50-50 formula. Is it either-or, or is it 50-50? But read the following Talmudic snippet regarding Shavuot:
Says Rabbi Elazar: All authorities agree, with regard to Atzeret (Shavuot) that we require also that it be FOR YOU. What is the reason? It is the day on which the Torah was given (Talmud, Pesahim, 68b).
This is a fascinating observation. On the day that the guide to life was transmitted to us – a truly spiritual day – the Talmud takes it as self-understood that we must celebrate. Using words like feast, festival or celebration to define Shavuot, as well as other Holy Days, is not a misnomer – quite the contrary.
This is all myth-shattering. Exactly why did the Talmud associate transmission of the Torah with feasting? What better way to convey our joy at receiving the Torah? What better way to project that we not accept the Torah as a burden we are stuck with? What better way to express our joy at being who we are?
If there is one spiritual challenge we must meet head-on as we agonize over the Jewish future, it is how do we convey the joy of being Jewish? Historically, to this day, there are those who would deny Jews the ability to celebrate being Jewish. We have so many melancholy commemorations in our calendar that we sometimes forget Judaism is a joyful embrace of life.
In fact, if you search the Torah, you will not find any day that is defined as sad. Not even Yom Kippur is a sad day, just the opposite.
Judaism has always been, at its core, a joyous expression. Yes, we have a boatload of restrictions, but these are all to ensure that the joy we live is a meaningful joy, not a narcissistic, destructive joy.
So, how do we make sure that the obligation to eat on a festival does not degenerate into an orgiastic eat-fest? We do this by investing the eating with spiritual substance; by inviting others less fortunate to join us at the table; and by using the opportunity to expand our knowledge and increase of our commitment.
Joy lived with a noble purpose becomes joy that is shared. Joy that is shared is joy that inspires. Joy that inspires is the way that ensures our posterity. That always was and always will be the way.