The Shavuot Jew

Is the Shavuot Jew superior to the Passover Jew?

Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

rabbi riskin.jpg
rabbi riskin.jpg
Arutz 7
"And you shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Sabbath [the first day of the Festival of Matzot]... seven Sabbaths, a complete (count) shall they be... fifty days shall you count; and you shall bring a new gift offering for the Lord... two loaves of bread, uplifted... that you bake as leavening, first fruits for the Lord." (Leviticus 23:15-17)

Is the Shavuot Jew superior to the Passover Jew? The count (sefira) of forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot, days like Hol HaMoed (intermediate days of a festival), express the connection between the holy days; indeed, Passover is the very beginning of our inception as a nation - even before we received the 613 commandments of our Bible and even before we entered the Promised Land of Israel - and Shavuot is our end-goal, the day in which we received the Torah, and is additionally our Festival of First Fruits, which we bring to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

From this perspective, the Passover Jew relates to G-d's covenant with Abraham (Genesis); he feels first and foremost a profound familial connection with every Jew, a blood-bond that impels him/her to share in the Jewish fate - even if it means sacrificing his/her life - and to participate in the Jewish destiny. He/she connects with the familial stories of the origins of the family-nation of Israel, enjoys the special familial foods and major occasions of familial celebration or mourning (Passover matzah, for example), and feels him/herself to be an integral part of the Jewish community.

The Shavuot Jew, on the other hand, relates to G-d's covenant with the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai, after the Divine revelation of the Torah (Exodus 24:7-10). This Jew resides in Israel - after all, the festival celebrates the bringing of the first fruits to the Jerusalem Temple - and apparently accepts all of the commandments as attested to by the national proclamation preceding this second covenant, "we shall perform [the Divine commands] and we shall internalize [or understand] them." Whereas the major motivation for the Passover Jew is his horizontal relationship with the Jewish peoplehood, the major motivation for the Shavuot Jew is his vertical relationship with G-d, his commitment to a higher law that it is his duty to observe.

There is yet one more aspect to the Shavuot Jew that must be emphasized: his vertical relationship to G-d ought to impel him to establish a profound horizontal relationship not only with his/her sibling Jews, but also with every single human being on earth. After all, if indeed "G-d created the human being in His image," (Genesis 1:27) then each of us human beings contains within him/herself a portion of that Divine essence; if part of G-d is within me and part of G-d is within you, then we both share part of that same Divine essence that bonds each of us to the other in an inextricable bind.

Hence, our Bible commands: "Observe the Sabbath day [which is a testimony of G-d's creation of all earthly creatures] to keep it holy... in order that your Gentile male servant and your Gentile female servant may rest like you." (Deuteronomy 5:12,14). Apparently, this is because your Gentile servant is essentially like you, endowed with that very same "image of G-d" that endows you with your ultimate and inviolate value.

This is precisely how Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (12th Century Biblical commentator) understands what is probably the most famous verse in the Bible: "You shall love your neighbor like yourself, I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19:18) Says Ibn Ezra, "One should love doing good to his friend as he would wish to do for himself; and the reason that [this verse] concludes with the words 'I am the Lord' is because I am the Lord who has created you as one." (Ibn Ezra, ad loc)

Perhaps the most outstanding expression of this principle is the introduction to the daily prayer written by Rabbi Haim Vital (outstanding disciple of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria of 16th-century Safed) and adopted by almost every prayer book of the Eastern Jewish communities (edot hamizrach): "Before one begins one's prayer, it is proper to say, 'Behold, I accept upon myself the commandment of "you shall love your neighbor like yourself."'" Apparently, the very purpose of attempting to come close to the Almighty in prayer is so that we might come close to our fellow human beings created in the image of the one G-d. And this may very well be the deepest reason why we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot: the true Shavuot Jews feels the obligation to bring every human being, even a Moabite woman, under the wings of the Divine Presence, at the very least to accept the seven Noahide laws of morality (Maimonides, "Laws of Kings", 8, 10).

From all that we've written thus far, it seems clear that the Shavuot Jew is far more complete - and praiseworthy - than is the Passover Jew. However, there is one problematic flaw that tragically often manifests itself in the Shavuot Jew: his closeness to G-d not only fails to enhance his closeness to every Jew and every human being, but that very closeness to the Divine sometimes removes him/her even further from his/her fellow Jew and fellow human being. It is as Rabbi Yaakov Yosef (the 18th-century author of Toldot, a masterful defence of Hassidism and a scathing indictment of rabbinic mitnaged leadership) suggests: "'With G-d did Noah walk' (Genesis 6:9); with G-d, and not with humanity, so that Noah neither remonstrated with G-d on behalf of the world, nor did he attempt to bring the errant children closer to their father in heaven, as did Abraham."

Rabbi Avraham Yitchak HaKohen Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, says it very strongly: "The soul of the sinners of Israel before the coming of the Messiah, those who are connected with love to all matters affecting the welfare of the Jewish people, the Land of Israel and its nation, is more perfected than the soul of the religious faithful of Israel who lack that fundamental feeling for the communal well-being and the renewal of the nation and the land." (Arpilei Tohar, Mosad HaRav Kook, pp. 11, 12) In other words, a Passover Jew who truly loves and sacrifices for his nation can sometimes be on a higher plane than the Shavuot Jew who is careful not to transgress over connecting him to G-d, but lacks true love for every Jew and every human being.


Rabbi Yisrael Salanter would tell the following story, which demonstrates how closeness to G-d can sometimes lead to distance from one's fellow Jew and fellow human being. Rabbi Yisrael was once stuck in Kovno unexpectedly just before Kol Nidrei. When he entered the synagogue, the gabbai immediately invited him to sit along the eastern wall; he preferred to stand at the end of the synagogue and purvey the scene.

He noticed a Jew praying with great devotion, mouthing audibly the following prayer: "My Lord, before I was born, I was not worthy; now that I have been born, it is as if I had never been born. I stand before You as a vessel filled with shame and humiliation."

As he mouthed these words, tears were coursing down his cheeks. Rav Yisrael motioned to the gabbai that he wished to be seated in the empty seat next to that particular person. He found the great rabbi was much inspired by his seat-mate, and this inspiration continued the following day. During the reading of the Torah, the seat-mate seemed to fidget uncomfortably. The gabbai asked him to accept the honor of binding the torah (Gelilah), and he had a veritable 'fit'!

"Gelilah? Gelilah is for the dogs. Give it to someone else, I am leaving this place."

The great rabbi turned to his seat-mate in confusion, "But did you not just weep over the fact that you are not worthy, that you are like a vessel filled with humiliation?"

"Yes, in comparison to the Almighty I am not worthy; but in comparison to these jokers and ignoramuses, I deserve far greater honor than they!"

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