Way back in the mid-1980s, I was spending Shavuos in Staten Island, and Rabbi Jay Marcus, now the rabbi emeritus of the Young Israel of Staten Island, told a funny, yet sad, story. He said that one of the congregants told his boss that he needed two days off to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Shavuos. A few days later, the boss called the fellow into his office and was quite angry. He said the following: “If you needed two days off, I would gladly give it to you… but why did you make up a Jewish holiday?” The guy did not understand. “I didn’t make up anything!” The boss then said, “Sorry, I don’t believe you. I never heard of Shavuos, so I asked five of my Jewish friends and nobody ever heard of it either!”
While this story happened about 35 years ago, I’m sure that things haven’t changed. Let’s face it: Shavuos simply won’t make the “Top Ten” list when it comes to Jewish awareness. The whole world has heard about Pesach, Chanukah, and Yom Kippur – but Shavuos? I think gefilte fish beats it out on the list.
Before answering why, let me make the question even stronger. Sukkos commemorates the fact that clouds surrounded us for 40 years in the desert. That was truly a great miracle, but why do we need a seven-day holiday for that? We can easily shake our lulav and esrog and sit in the sukkah for one day (or two)! It’s the same with Pesach: Leaving Egypt was an incredible event – so let’s celebrate it with an unforgettable day packed with a Seder, festive meals, and Hallel. But seven days? Why?? Compare this to Shavuos. Unquestionably, it commemorates the greatest event in human history: the giving of the Torah! This is why we left Egypt and sat under those clouds in the first place! This is it: the biggest, most awesome event ever experienced by a nation – before or after! Nothing paralleled it, nothing came close to it – nor ever will – and the entire world was permanently changed as a result. If any holiday should last a week – and be familiar to the world – and have special laws attached to it (besides cheesecake), it’s this one! The holiday of Shavuos should be the biggest and most popular holiday on the calendar. Yet, just the opposite is true.
In Israel, Shavuos is just one day. It literally comes and goes before you blink. The customary dairy meal is nice (especially at dessert time!) but, once again, it doesn’t feel like Yom Tov. No chicken soup, no cholent, no stuffed cabbage – what’s going on here? Americans eat better on Thanksgiving! Wouldn’t it be great to have the Shavuos meal with five cups of wine – connected to the five books of the Torah? And how about dancing? I love the dancing on Simchas Torah, but why not also dance on Shavuos? We received the Torah – what joy! You have to admit it, there’s something seriously missing on Shavuos.
Here’s what I think: Shavuos lacks nothing and is actually the perfect holiday! Think about it. We shake a lulav for a week and then never touch it the rest of the year. We sit in a sukkah during that same week and take it down when the holiday is over. We have a Seder on one (or two) nights, then store away the Haggadah for a year. This is the trend for every holiday: We focus on several main points quite extensively – and then move on to other things immediately afterwards. Imagine if we did that for Shavuos – the holiday of the Torah. We would keep Shavuos for a week… and then put away the Torah for the next 51 weeks. Heaven forbid!
This is exactly the point. Learning Torah and especially living Torah is not reserved for a holiday. Shavuos is not about remembering how the Torah was given 3,332 years ago; it’s about how the Torah was given yesterday – and today – and will be given again, tomorrow! Living a Torah life means living new each and every day. A 64-year-old man needs to feel about his t’filin the same way he did at his bar mitzvah. A 42-year-old woman needs to be as excited in her davening as the day she received her siddur back in first grade. Your fourth Daf Yomi cycle needs to be as uplifting as the first, and your life in Israel has to be as energetic as the day you stepped off that Nefesh B’Nefesh flight (or will be, very soon).
Shavuos is not a commemoration. It’s not a holiday of stories or unique mitzvos. It is a life-long mission that has been handed down from generation to generation, and for that reason, if you are not connected to our Father in Heaven, you probably never heard of it. Shavuos is a commitment, a lifestyle, and a dedication. For that reason, it is a simple day with one focus: learning the Torah that Hashem gave to you – a member of the unique and special Jewish nation! This is also why Shavuos doesn’t need much preparation – because it has an opposite effect. Instead of spending a lot of time before the holiday (cleaning the house, building the sukkah, etc.), it drives you to action after the holiday!
Therefore, dearest friends, take the message of this day seriously. Shavuos is not a piece of history. It is the day where we begin our journey as Torah Jews and live our lives serving the King. What an honor and privilege to have been chosen for that task! You think we got that job for just one day??
Shmuel Sackett is a 100% product of Queens. He was born in Middle Village and moved to KGH shortly before his bar-mitzvah. He graduated from YCQ (1975) and YHSQ (1979). He was Havurat Yisrael’s first Youth Director (4 years) and started the first 2 NCSY chapters in Queens. Shmuel made aliyah in 1990 and co-founded Manhigut Yehudit, together with Moshe Feiglin. His website is www.JewishIsrael.org Sackett is married with 6 children and 4 grandchildren. He lives in Herziliya Pituach.