Every holiday is dependent, so to speak, on memory for its observance to be meaningful and uplifting. The specific commandments, customs and rituals that accompany the Jewish holidays of the year are the memory aids that trigger our emotional and spiritual responses.
Just sitting in a succah or eating matzo is sufficient to open the floodgates of memory that enhance our observance of that holiday. But the holiday of Shavuot has no specific all-encompassing commandment that accompanies it. It is short in duration – here in Israel it is only one day – and though agricultural in its origin (bringing the first fruit and crop offerings to Jerusalem in Temple times) it has lost much of that tenor in a society that is urbanized and globalized.
It is not surprising that in the Jewish Diaspora, beset as it is by alienation and Jewish amnesia, Shavuot is unfortunately almost a forgotten holiday for millions of Jews. There is nothing special to jog long repressed memories. It is difficult for those who know almost no Torah all year round to commemorate the traditional date of the granting of the Torah.
If Torah is not special and personal to them then why should the day of its descent from Heaven to the people of Israel carry any special significance? The loss of memory is so complete and total that Shavuot has truly become the forgotten holiday of the Jewish people. The people of the book do not know any longer what book is being referred to.
Nevertheless the people of Israel, and certainly those here in Israel, have adorned the holiday with sufficient customs and rituals to reconnect us to that day at Sinai when we became a holy and special people with the granting of the Torah to the Jewish nation. Dairy meals, the Book of Ruth, floral decorations in the synagogue, all night Torah study, and here in Jerusalem, sunrise services at the Western Wall, all combine to make the day special and memorable.
In searching for the origins and meanings of these customs, the memory bank of Judaism and the Jewish people is opened and thousands of years and hundreds of generations are condensed and united in celebration of the centrality of Torah in Jewish life and society. As a child I remember that we rarely had cheese served in our house, as it was a semi-luxury in a home that then rarely offered those extravagances. But when Shavuot came around, so did the cheese in its various varieties and dishes.
So even now, when cheese appears almost daily on our table and in our diet, every time I partake of it I remember Shavuot and my father’s exposition on the greatness of Torah and the uniqueness of Israel. One could say that Simchat Torah was the holiday of Torah for the masses of the Jewish people but that Shavuot was the holiday of Torah, uniquely observed by the scholars of Israel in their all-night vigil of study.
It is remarkable to me to see how the all-night Torah study sessions on Shavuot have now penetrated almost all sections of Israeli society. Great is the power of memory and of customs that create and reinforce that connection.
My teachers in the yeshiva long ago emphasized to me the difficulties inherent in studying Torah regularly and intensively. The holiday of Shavuot represents that difficulty in its uniqueness. It is a short holiday in time, over almost before it starts and before one can get into its swing of things. To a certain extent it lacks the glamour of the other holidays of the year. Nevertheless, it imposes on us a centrality and concentration of thought, and of our history and the nature of our covenant with our Creator.
It points out to us the accuracy of the pithy statement attributed to Rabbi Saadyah Gaon of ninth century Babylonia that: “Our nation is a nation only by virtue of our Torah.” It is this covenantal relationship with God, that the Torah personifies and represents, that binds all of the scattered and disparate parts of the Jewish people together. It is the Torah that has helped us return to our homeland and create a vibrant and dynamic country against all odds and many foes.
Torah is the treasure house of our stored memories and of our future dreams and hopes. Shavuot comes to teach us this lesson of life and history. It is memory personified. Only with restored memory will we be completely free and redeemed.