This coming Saturday night will see immense numbers of Jews studying Scripture until sunrise. They will be observing the sixth of the month of Sivan, Shavuot 5778, the 3,330th anniversary of the events described in Exodus 19, when God handed over His book to Moses.
What happened on Shavuot plays a crucial role in the daily lives of Jews. For instance, every circumcision of a Jewish male infant commemorates God’s gift of the Torah. Without that Scriptural commandment, it is extremely unlikely that this minor operation would have been so consistently performed on every Jewish male.
Every time a Jew declines bacon with his morning eggs, he is recognizing that most important event of Jewish history which took place on Shavuot. Jewish marriages are properly solemnized, “…according to the laws of Moses and Israel,” once again with a firm foundation in what took place on Shavuot.
It is therefore puzzling that Shavuot, the day on which God presented the Bible, gets trumped in popularity by other festivals that wouldn’t even be celebrated at all were it not for that Bible. For example, many more American Jews celebrate Passover than celebrate Shavuot. Many more Jews celebrate Chanukah than celebrate Shavuot. It is hard to think of a holiday bearing greater religious significance than Shavuot; it is also hard to think of a Jewish holiday that gets less attention. Just try asking a non-observant Jewish acquaintance about Shavuot—you’re likely to get a puzzled look in return. Why are so many Jews indifferent to Shavuot?
A clue to the obscurity of Shavuot is that the festivals that are most popular are those that lend themselves to secularization, which is to say, they can be observed with neither mentioning nor thinking about God.
For instance, Passover allows a secular observance. For many American Jews it has become little more than a family reunion; the dinner table distinguished chiefly by a symbolic box of matzo and a little more wine than usual. Any discussion, if it takes place at all, tends to focus on the universal aspects of freedom. Moses against Pharaoh in Egypt is just another Fidel against Batista in Cuba. Entirely ignored is the Almighty’s role in redemption. Evidently, keeping it secular keeps it comfortable; and popular.
Chanukah is equally comfortable since it too allows a secular expression. Bring light into the world by the symbolic candle lighting, exchange gifts and celebrate the unusual Jewish military victory against the Greeks. This way, nobody need be disconcerted by divisive ideas about the spiritual tension between secular Athens and holy Jerusalem. The religious nature of the Macabee’s struggle can be ignored because there are safe symbols to preoccupy us. It is such bad form to bring God into everything, isn’t it?
Shavuot however, is awkward. There is simply no secular rationale for celebrating it. Getting together for Shavuot observance is a tacit confession that one believes in God and in His Message to mankind delivered through Moses on Sinai. There is no option but to celebrate it as the day that God asserted His authority over us. What fun!
The problem is that the self-indulgent credo of a secular society is “reject authority.” Eventually much of a population becomes indoctrinated to the absurd notion that doing anything that you don’t really want to do is somehow a betrayal of your true self. Without God, a secular society gradually loses its sense that there is greatness in service to others.
If serving others is menial then don’t be surprised by gradual deterioration of marriage and families. After all, few men voluntarily wish to restrict their sexual options and still fewer wish to dedicate themselves to supporting a woman and her offspring emotionally, physically and financially. Men gradually forget that overcoming the selfish instinct is the path to greatness.
Furthermore, men who can no longer respond to an order with the words, “Yes sir!” are men on the road to poverty. Sometimes the most important lesson of one’s first job is nothing more than learning how to obey the boss who hired you. The road to greater responsibility is learning that one can only acquire authority by being able to accept it.
One of the main differences between a nation comfortable in its Judeo-Christian heritage and one struggling to reject it is how its people accept authority. Do they manufacture bumper stickers that proclaim “question authority!” or do they train children to obey parents, students to venerate teachers, husbands to revere their wives, and soldiers to follow their commanders. And do those authorities show that they’re worthy of respect and obedience by themselves accepting a ‘higher authority’?
Shavuot serves as an annual infusion of ‘authority medicine’. The holiday possesses little else around which we can structure a symbolism and an escape from the uncomfortable reality of our Divine Boss. The reality of the Bible itself helps us learn to subjugate our instincts and restrain our appetites. It starts, for many, with banishing sleep for one entire night while poring over the pages of that book, God’s great gift to humanity and the foundation of civilization.
There are myriad benefits to growing up with a knowledge of the Bible. One drawback is that sometimes we don’t look at it with sophisticated eyes, instead keeping a childhood image. Take a new look at the Ten Commandments with our audio CD and discover God’s gift for successful living in these special verses.