The next major holiday after Passover is Shavuot; how are these holidays connected?
Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are the three biblical pilgrimage festivals that celebrate the seasonal harvests: spring, summer and fall. In the days of the First and Second Temples, our ancestors would converge on Jerusalem on these festivals, bringing offerings from their crops and their flocks to the Temple.
Yet Passover and Shavuot are uniquely connected and interdependent. If you attended a seder a few weeks ago, you’ll recall that Passover is far more than a harvest holiday; it commemorates the exodus from Egypt and the beginning of the Jews’ history as a free nation. Shavuot, according to rabbinic tradition, marks the next milestone in our Jewish journey: the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.
Linking the two holidays in this way artfully illustrates that freedom is not an end in itself; liberation from Egypt becomes purposeful only after the Israelites take on responsibility for the Torah at Sinai. This may feel counterintuitive in a culture where personal freedom is upheld as the highest value. Yet Judaism claims that freedom finds its fullest expression in our willing commitment to standards of behavior and action that are not determined by ourselves alone.
Think of the seven-week journey from Passover to Shavuot as a time to contemplate the meaning of personal freedom. How do we liberate ourselves from the many idolatries of mind and heart that often confound and confuse us? Our intention is to arrive at Sinai with an open and loving heart, ready to hear the will of the Creator of the Universe in a new way.
The rabbis often use marriage as a metaphor for the relationship between God and the Jewish people. They describe Passover as the courtship, and Shavuot as the wedding, when bride and group commit themselves to each other in a covenantal relationship. The Torah, in this scenario, is the ketubah, or wedding contract. Many synagogues today reenact this symbolism when taking the Torah out of the ark on Shavuot morning, decorating a chuppah (marriage canopy) with flowers, and even reading a “ketubah” binding God and the Jewish people together.
Although the Shavuot-Sinai connection articulated by the rabbis is not found in the Torah itself, the dependence of Shavuot on Passover is. Here’s a fun fact: Shavuot is the only holiday in the Torah for which no specific calendar date is articulated. How do we know when to observe Shavuot? Count seven weeks (49 days) from Passover. The 50th day is Shavuot. And that, actually, is the literal meaning of the word “Shavuot”—“weeks!” May these weeks of counting lead you to both liberation and renewed commitment.
Rabbi Dan Liben is the rabbi at Temple Israel of Natick, a Conservative synagogue.