Shavuot: Strange Bedfellows

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

Chanukah and Purim. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret. The aforementioned holidays form natural units. When one thinks of Shavuot, the natural association is Pesach. After all, Shavuot has no independent date; it is 50 days after Pesach, a fact we highlight during each and every of the forty-nine intervening nights. The entire purpose of the Exodus was to arrive at Sinai and accept the Torah. Not only are Pesach and Shavuot linked, they are dependent on each other. Thus, unlike the other holidays, Shavuot is not accorded a separate paragraph in the Biblical text; rather, its laws are recorded as an adjunct to the holiday of Pesach.

It appears to me, however, that on close analysis the holiday of Shavuot shares much in common with another of our “holidays”: that of Tisha B’Av. Our weekly Torah reading is set up in such a way that the holiday of Shavuot always occurs between the parshiot of Bamidbar and Naso, the first and second parshiot of the fourth book of the Torah. Interestingly, the observance of Tisha B’Av always falls between the first and second parshiot of Sefer Devarim. While this might just be an interesting coincidence, this is just one of a number of parallels between these two dates on our calendar. Both are preceded by counting, the 7 weeks of sefirah leading to Shavuot and the three weeks to Tisha B’av. We also count days, 49 for sefirah and 9 sad days before Tisha b’Av. Both involve the eating of milk products, during the nine days and on Shavuot itself. On Shavuot, we celebrate the receiving of the Torah; and sadly, on Tisha B’Av we mourn our rejection of the Torah. Thus the Haftorah of Tisha b’Av morning contains such phrases as “So G-d said. It (the loss of the land) is because they have forsaken my Torah which I set before them; they did not hearken to My voice and they did not walk therein" (Yirmiyahu 9:12).

Tisha B’Av is, in reality, a natural result of not fully understanding the true meaning of Shavuot. “They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at Wilderness of Sinai .. and Israel encamped (Vayichan) there opposite the mountain” (Exodus 18:3). Our Sages noted a grammatical anomaly regarding the word Vayichan, and (literally) “he” encamped. Proper grammatical construct requires the word Vayachanu, and "they" encamped, in the plural. After all there were more than three million people encamped at Sinai. By use of the singular, the Torah is telling us that they encamped as one, “like one person with one heart” (see Rashi). The unity of the Jewish people was such that we could refer to them in the singular. Energized by agreeing to become G-d’s chosen nation, they were able to rise above their petty and destructive complaining and arguing. All were united in a common goal of living up to the Divine image within us. Alas, Tisha B’Av represents the exact opposite. Disunity, complaining, hatred and lies became the norm. Rabbis were afraid to speak out lest they offend the wealthy, the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza being the paradigm example.

The holiday of Shavuot is z'man matan torateinu. It is a time of the Jewish people coming together in peace and harmony as we try to implement the Divine mission entrusted to us. While disagreements are legitimate and even necessary and mandated, they must be done in matter befitting the chosen nation of G-d. Mistruths, distortions, personal grievances, and political manouvering have no place in our quest for Torat Emet, the Torah of truth. Those are the qualities of Tisha b’Av, the saddest day of the year. Let us learn the true meaning of Shavuot so that it can be a time of joy for all and, as in the times of old, we can come together in Jerusalem praying in a rebuild Beit Hamikdash.