Shavuot is a short holiday – one day in Israel, two in the Diaspora. There is no special mitzva connected to it. And, at least in theory, it has no fixed date. Shavuot is completely dependent on Passover, which precedes it, and is celebrated only after the counting of seven weeks. Before there was a fixed Jewish calendar, Shavuot could fall on any one of three possible dates: the 5th, the 6th or the 7th of Sivan.
Shavuot is defined as “the time of the giving of our Torah.” Yet the great significance of this date is not always understood, especially when this phrase is mistranslated as “the giving of the Law.” The basic meaning of “Torah” is not “Law,” the legal aspect of the Torah that contains all the do’s and don’ts.
Instead, the giving of the Torah is actually the real birthday of Jewish existence. The freedom attained by our forefathers in the Exodus was just a preliminary stage; the real beginning of the Jews as a nation, and of Jewishness as an idea, is in the giving of the Torah. It is only since then that the Jewish people became an entity in itself. This is the point from which on we are not just people, but Jews.
On a wider, universal scale, the giving of the Torah carries major theological significance. The distance between God and man is infinite. Philosophizing, meditation, spiritual transcendence – these exercises are just like jumping in order to reach the moon. They only demonstrate that we have the desire to get there, not that we can reach it.
The giving of the Torah is, therefore, a unique and most important event in world history. As the Book of Exodus (19:20) says, God descended to Mount Sinai. Only the Omnipotent God can, by His own will, bridge the unbridgeable chasm between Himself and the world. The very act of giving the Torah means that God is interested in us, that He cares about what we do — and this is what grants meaning to everything that we do in this world. In this sense, the very “encounter” with God is the most important part – not because it is proof of His existence, but because it is proof of the connection between Him and the world. In other words, the holiday of Shavuot tells us – to put it in the words of a Jewish philosopher – that God is “more remote than the most remote, and closer than the closest.”
To explore a corollary idea, let us note that Shavuot is defined precisely as “the time of the giving of the Torah.” The giving of the Torah is a one-sided act; God gives us His Torah – a huge, very precious and very heavy gift to carry. But the giving of the Torah does not necessarily mean that it is also received.
Receiving the Torah is a very different notion. We may have this gift very close to us, but are we ready to accept it? Receiving the Torah is not just a matter of studying it and doing what is written in it. For many people the Torah may, at most, be like a registered letter waiting for us; something that we have to fetch from the post office. But really acquiring the Torah is not the abstract fact of a gift received. For my part, there must be the act of accepting it, making it part of my true possessions.
Shavuot is a date for the giving of the Torah, and we celebrate it. The date of receiving the Torah, however, is very individual. It happens not only at different times of the year, but also at different times in one’s life.
The idea that we can own the Torah is a very ancient one. It means that there can be, that there is, a sharing and a partnership with God, and that the act of sharing is achieved through the Torah. When we realize that we can have a relationship with the Torah, that day is our own day of “receiving” it.
The feast of Shavuot, of the giving of the Torah, then, is not only a memory, but also a gift and a promise that at some time in the future we will also receive it.