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Shavuot: How Israelites Became a Holy Nation
In the Talmud, the festival of Shavuot is normally referred to as "Atzeret," which, roughly translated, means a "day of assembly." However, the word implies even more, since atzeret signifies a closing day of assembly.
For example, after the festival of Sukkot comes Shemini Atzeret, the "Eighth Day of Assembly." Though it is, in the words of the sages, "a holiday of its own," it is connected to Sukkot since it brings the festival to a close.
So why should Shavuot -- a one-day (and outside of Israel, a two-day) festival -- be an atzeret? What does it close?
Shavuot, which celebrates our receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, marks the end of the Passover season. However, the proximity of the two holidays is far more than a coincidence of the calendar.
On the second night of Passover, we began counting the Omer -- all 50 days until Shavuot.
Yet when to begin this mitzvah was a source of significant and far-reaching controversy between the rabbis and the leaders of the Saducees, a breakaway sect founded in the second century BCE that didn't believe in the Oral Torah, which extends beyond the five books of Moses to include the whole body of Jewish law and teachings.
According to the Torah, we are commanded to begin counting "from the morrow of the Shabbat." The Saducees took this to mean from Sunday. The rabbis, however, who held to the traditional belief that the Oral Torah also comes from Hashem, knew that this meant beginning to count after the first day of Passover (since Yom Tov is also called a "Shabbat").
Nature of the People
One of my teachers, Rabbi Yitzchok Sender, has pointed out that this was more than just a dispute over dates and times, that it defined the very nature of the Jewish people.
The rabbis understood that the counting must begin during Passover, since receiving the Torah was the very purpose of our being redeemed from Egypt. We were not to be like any other nation, but rather, a Holy Nation.
But the Saducees disagreed. They conceived of Passover as a national liberation holiday with no fundamental connection to the Torah. And since they could not make a connection between the nation's freedom and the Torah, they and their followers eventually vanished from our people and the earth.
The halachah and Jewish history follow the rabbis of the Talmud. Thus, we can clearly see that Shavuot is indeed atzeret. On Passover, we celebrate the freedom that God gave us, but we are also unlike any other nation.
We are the nation that Hashem freed from bondage in order to give us the Torah. Only once we accepted the sacred text were we ready to be a Holy Nation and march into the land of Israel.
It is not surprising that two of the fundamental beliefs of Judaism -- our redemption from Egypt and the revelation of the Torah -- demonstrate that God acts directly in our lives, and also cares deeply about us and our actions.
These are the events that brought us to the land of Israel and preserved us during the centuries of exile. And Hashem's direct involvement in history is what has brought us back to Israel, and what will eventually bring us Mashiach.
Chag Sameach -- may you have an enlightening holiday!
Rabbi Shmuel Jablon is the Menahel of Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia and host of: www.rabbijablon.com.