Nationhood and freedom - two concepts, two holidays

Why Shavuot is the holiday of nationhood.

Rabbi Berel Wein, | updated: 12:59

Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein
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This holiday was marked in Temple times by bringing the first fruits of the new crops of the new agricultural year as an offering. However, during our times, when the Temple service is not performed, there is no single commandment that applies to this holiday. Therefore, the Jewish people, in their love for the holidays of the year, have created customs that accompany this holiday even if they were not of biblical or halakhic imperatives.

This holiday has become associated with dairy foods and all-night Torah study sessions. Here in Israel the holiday is only a one-day celebration (this year it is attached to Shabbat) and for many it feels like it is over before it even began. Nevertheless, every Jewish holiday has its own personality and that is true for Shavout as well.

Shavuot marks the beginning of summer, though the hot weather has been with us already for a number of weeks.  The essence of the holiday is the renewal of our commitment and bond to Torah as being the basic pillar of our national and personal lives. The prayers and Torah reading of the holiday emphasize this central point, upon which all of Jewish life and existence is based. Torah is not only a book or intellectual discipline to be studied and absorbed but it is rather the complete and overriding core of the Jewish existence and purpose. In the words of Rav Saadia Gaon: “…we are a nation only because of our Torah.”

As such, Pesach is the holiday of our freedom, but Shavuot is the holiday of our nationhood.  The Lord informed us at Sinai that, “… it is today that you have become a nation.” Nationhood and freedom are two different concepts and achievements. Freedom is personal and signifies control over one’s life, behavior and actions. Nationhood signifies connection to society, history and destiny, as being part of a whole and not merely an individual.

It is nationhood that confers upon the individual the sense of being unique and different, important and not simply redundant, eternal and not a feather passing in the wind. The Jewish definition of freedom is integrated with the discipline of Torah practice and study. The Jewish definition of nationhood is integrated with loyalty to the Jewish people as a whole and to the land of Israel. In current times I am well of the opinion that it is also integrated with loyalty and support of the state of Israel, imperfect as that state may be since it is composed of human beings and human leadership.

This holiday represents for us this definition of nationhood in its finest and holiest way. For centuries the Jewish people experienced spiritual but not physical freedom. We also experienced a sense of nationhood even though we had no country under our control, one to which we really belonged. Our generation currently has the gift of experiencing both freedom and nationhood at one and the same time. We should not squander such a wonderful golden opportunity.

Chag Samrach

Rabbi Berel Wein





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