As a famous Jewish comedian used to kvetch, “I don’t get no respect.” I feel we treat Shavuos similarly. In Temple days, how would you compare the Holy of Holies to a Jerusalem tavern down the street? Silly question, yes? Then why does Shavuos get such minor league attraction?
We got the Torah! The cradle of Western civilization! So, some of us go to shul (compare it to Yom Kippur attendance) and we study, or nap, through the night over an open Chumash. We eat dairy and read the Book of Ruth. No bugles blare and no rabbis make two-hour presentations.
Even books designed to explain Judaism’s beauty give it short shrift: 10 pages to the Jacob/Esau rivalry, a page and a half to this modest holiday. I’m only a scribbler, not a sage, but I don’t get it. Then, there’s the fact that our reception of the Torah is combined with a harvest celebration. What’s the connection? The relationship between barley and Torah seems odd. Maybe one is food for the body, the other for the soul. Are we trying to economize on holidays? Two for the price of one?
And why do we read the Book of Ruth, which is a tract featuring intermarriage – a practice loudly condemned by dozens of statements in the Torah? It seems to be written by someone who favored fraternization with our deadly enemies, the Moabites. Remember that the path to the Promised Land goes through Moab. We fought our way through it. How did this book get chosen? Did they take a vote on Purim after a day of gorging on the grape?
The Book of Ruth is a book in which everyone is gentle, even the Moabites. Everyone is supportive of their fellow characters. If it were a play, this story would run for years on Broadway.
Ruth, a Moabite, is loyal to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Her first husband, Naomi’s son, has died. Naomi – remember, a Jew – strategizes with Ruth to win the heart of Boaz, also a Jew. A famine stalks the land. Perhaps the agricultural setting explains the use of the holiday as a harvest celebration, but not its connection with the Torah. I consider this every time I think of Shavuos, one of the three special occasions, along with Sukkot and Pesach, when all Israel flocked to the Temple. With the destruction of the Temple, I think we lost the grandeur of Shavuos.
They shouldn’t have named it Shavuos, Hebrew for weeks. Indeed, seven weeks after Pesach comes Shavuos. Like in a Jewish wedding ceremony – seven times the bride (Israel) circles her groom (the Creator), thereby remembering and reenacting our covenant. We rest on the seventh day and, for seven years, the land must lie fallow. Even today, that ancient poetic number still glows with luck – from the sublime to the ridiculous, the seven wins initially for the dice shooter and excites the roar of the winners.
I can see it now. It’s 1000 BCE and the annual meeting of the Israelite holiday commemoration committee. “We need a special day to honor and commemorate that fateful day when God gave us the Torah,” said the chairman. A chorus of agreement rocked the room. Done. Then that guy in the back of every room (yes, he was around even then) shouted, “Yeah, but what about the grain harvest?” Puzzled, the committee men looked at each other in bewilderment. The grain harvest?
The chairman spoke: “Look, we got enough holidays now – nobody’s working. Let’s save a holiday and throw it in with Shavuos. [And they hadn’t even made Tu b’Shevat yet!] After all, the grain harvest lasts seven weeks, and the Holy One gave us Torah seven weeks after we paraded out of Egypt. We’ll make Shavuos celebrate both events, thereby economizing on holidays. Done.”
Shavuos, for all its importance, doesn’t get its due. No big feasting, no dramatic breast-beating, no triumphant chauvinism; only the satisfaction that more than three millennia ago in the darkest of the dark ages we were chosen to receive from the Hand of God a solemn covenant that we would be a light of civilization to the nations of the world.
No matter how many weeks after Pesach it falls, let’s face it: “Weeks” doesn’t do it justice. They should have called it Yom Torah or something like that. If I were a member of the holiday naming committee, I’d have called it Independence Day.
Ted Roberts is a freelance writer and humorist living in Huntsville, Ala.