Shavuot, the most subtle of holidays, comes in on cat’s paws, often eluding the Jewish and general consciousness. (This year it is celebrated from Tuesday evening to Thursday night, June 3-5.) Jack Frost, Thanksgiving and department stores herald the coming of Chanukah. Passover’s multiple preparations begin with Purim, and model seders with our American neighbors. Sukkot, with its highly visible accouterments, rides the coat tails of the High Holy Days. Shavuot — meaning simply “Weeks” — is prefaced with the seven weeks of the Omer’s nightly blessing, a sign that, starting with Passover, we eagerly anticipate the holiday on which the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. But only the Lou Gehrigs and Cal Ripkens among us haven’t missed an evening’s count along the way.
No one ever thinks to ask a Jewish ballplayer if he will not pitch on Shavuot.
There are several “new years” noted by the Talmud, but Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah, could well be the “new year” of the Jewish mind, soul and memory. One of the four times when we say Yizkor, it is a time best commemorated with awareness of our spiritual and physical fragility, a reminder of how we got from there to here.
It is traditional to spend the first night of Shavuot studying Torah all night. Indeed, one of the signs of Jewish renewal in our community is the growing number of young people who have participated in a variety of programs like the Paul Feig Tikkun Leil Shavuot at the JCC in Manhattan, which will combine traditional and innovative programs from 10 pm to 5 a.m.
According to Rav Yoel Glick, “many of the early chasidic masters did not even teach on Shavuot night. They spent the night in silent contemplation, “preparing to receive the ‘Divine revelation’ at dawn.” It was after the prelude of Shavuot night, in “the early hours of the morning, when all is calm and silent, that we can [best] hear the still, small voice” of God. Just as the desert was “stark, empty and still,” we can aspire on the night of Shavuot for our souls to “become clear, cleansed and silent.”
Some Israelites feared they were unworthy and would be sent away from that first Revelation. Many of us today may fear ourselves unworthy, our lives less analogous to Shavuot’s modern expressions of ice cream and cheesecake, floral displays and picnics, and more like the bewildering desert, when the Torah was given amid fire, dark clouds and thunder. This, then, is our holiday, when Heaven’s grace came to earth, when no one, no matter how afraid, is sent away, and all of us — the People of the Book — once again can see ourselves within its pages.