In two days, we will, God willing, celebrate the festival of Shavuot. What is this holiday all about? Why is it considered such a sacred day, to the point where the Ar”i Hakadosh claimed that it is holier than any other festival, even than Rosh Hashanah? We are obviously very happy over having received the Torah, but why is it considered so sacred?
The Rebbe of Slonim explains that although the Torah was given to us such a long time ago, the festival of Shavuot is not merely a commemoration of the Matan Torah that occurred then, as other festivals commemorate past events, but rather marks a renewed Matan Torah, in accordance with our generation. Therefore, even though the Torah was given to us on the seventh of Sivan, we celebrate this festival on the sixth and refer to this day as “Zeman Matan Torateinu” (“the time of the giving of our Torah”), for we celebrate the day when our acceptance of the Torah is renewed each year. Indeed, the Ar”i Hakadosh noted that in the pasuk describing Matan Torah, the Torah says, “Moshe will speak – and Hashem will respond to him with a voice” – in the future tense. The Ar”i explained this as an allusion to the fact that each year, an actual renewal of the giving of the Torah occurs.
The Torah says in Sefer Devarim, “Hashem spoke with you face-to-face in the mountain, from amidst the fire; I [Moshe] was standing in between Hashem and you.” This pasuk appears to contradict itself: it first describes Hashem as speaking directly, “face-to-face,” to Benei Yisrael, but then we read that Moshe stood in between the Almighty and us. The answer is that it all depends on the generation. At the time of Matan Torah, Hashem actually spoke with us directly, “face-to-face.” But in order to reach this level, Benei Yisrael had to go through the entire sefira period as a process of preparation and purification of their characters from the effects of the Egyptian exile, a process that included the “sheloshet yemei hagbala” (“three days of limitation”), during which they had to separate from all worldly matters. In addition, they experienced the thunder, lightening and smoke, and only after all this were they ready to meet with Hashem face-to-face. Needless to say, this all occurred with Hashem’s help, without which they would have been incapable of reaching such levels. As mentioned, all these measures and preparations are to be done today, as well. It is said that when the Ba’al Shem Tov would learn with his students on Shavuot, they would hear the sounds and thunder of Matan Torah. But unlike at the time of Matan Torah, today we must reach these levels by ourselves. Therefore, regarding our generation Moshe said, “I was standing in between Hashem and you” – for in our generation there is a barrier, which we must exert effort to remove. A beautiful analogy is given of a man who takes his son to the peak of a mountain and shows him the spectacular view, but then brings him down the mountain and says, “From now on, if you want to see this view, you must climb the mountain by yourself.” The same occurred at Matan Torah. Matan Torah featured a clear revelation of Hashem, and He helped us “climb the mountain” and reach the level where we could meet Him face-to-face. But now, if we want to once again reach these levels on Shavuot, it depends solely on us, and on the preparations that we make before the holiday.
We thus see the immense importance of preparation for Shavuot. As we mentioned earlier, Shavuot is more sacred than Rosh Hashanah. On Rosh Hashanah, we are judged with regard to our physical and material needs, whereas on Shavuot all our spiritual needs are determined for the coming year. And on Rosh Hashanah, the decision depends solely on us. Chazal comment that three “books” are opened on Rosh Hashanah – of the righteous, the wicked, and those in between. Meaning, these books are opened before each individual, who must decide where he wishes to be during the coming year, and how much he is prepared to invest in order to earn inclusion in the book of the righteous. If this is the situation with regard to our physical needs, then all the more so must we decide on Shavuot, with regard to our spiritual needs, how much of a spiritual investment are we prepared to make this year in order to be included in the book of the righteous. Herein lies the source of the word “Shavuot.” The Or Ha’chayim explains that this word stems from the word “shevu’a” – oath, for on Shavuot two oaths are taken. The first is the oath we take to Hashem promising to keep the Torah and observe it with all our hearts. Secondly, Hashem swears to us that He will not exchange us for any other nation, for we are considered His children regardless of our situation. Chazal comment in Masechet Ta’anit regarding the pasuk in Shir Hashirim, “Go out and look, O daughters of Zion, upon King Shelomo in the crown that his mother made for him on his wedding day, and on his day of joy,” that “wedding day” refers to Matan Torah. Just as at a wedding both parties make a commitment to one another, so on Shavuot do both parties pledge their commitment on oath. This also teaches us about the way in which we can reach the highest levels on Shavuot. For on a king’s wedding day, he distributes gifts unendingly to whoever asks. Therefore, we, too, can, on Shavuot, come to the King, to the Almighty, and request from Him the blessing of Shavuot – “you shall offer a new gift to Hashem,” a gift of renewal, that we will become new, better people.