Shavuot: Which festival has the most surprising name?
Which festival has the most surprising name? For me, the answer is definitely Shavuot. Why do I say that?
In Parshat Re’eh (Devarim 16:16), the Torah gives us the commandment concerning our pilgrim festivals which we must celebrate, “b’chag hamatzot, uv’chag hashavuot uv’chag hasuccot.” – “on the festival of matzas, and on the festival of weeks, and on the festival of succahs.”
Pesach is called Chag HaMatzot because the matza is an essential part of the festival. Likewise Succot is referred to by that name because dwelling in a succah is a key part of our celebration. But what about Shavuot, which means weeks? Here the name of the festival doesn’t refer to anything that takes place on the day but rather to the seven weeks which precede the festival.
Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the Holy Land, explained that on Shavuot we mark the fact that it was Zman Matan Torateinu, the season of giving of the Torah. That relates to what Hashem did – not what we did. Hashem gave us the Torah. When it comes to our receipt of the Torah, that is something which we must prepare for. Therefore, the name of the festival relates to a period of preparation.
In order for our study of Torah to provide a transformative experience for us, we need preparation: we need to understand the Hebrew language; we need to know how to read Rashi; we need to be familiar with Talmudic text. One cannot just arrive at a lecture on, for example kabbalah, and suddenly understand all the deep secrets of Torah knowledge. Preparation is crucial.
In addition, preparation has added relevance to the festival of Shavuot and that is because of our custom of Tikkun Leil Shavuot. We stay up right through the night and study. The word ‘tikkun’ means correction. What is it that we are correcting on that night? Our sages teach that the Israelites in the wilderness were on notice that this extraordinary event was to take place, but on the night before the Torah was given, they slept so well that Hashem needed to sound the shofar in heaven to wake them up!
We correct this by staying up all night studying, so that when the Torah is read and we hear the Ten Commandments on Shavuot morning, nobody will need to wake us up for this.
We are living in an age where, at the press of a button, we can gain instant gratification. From the name ‘Shavuot’ we learn about the crucial importance of preparation. We learn about the beauty of a keen sense of anticipation and we also learn about the thrills of the journey in addition to the destination.
I wish you all chag sameach.
To receive weekly insights from the Chief Rabbi, subscribe using the form below.