Throughout the Torah, the upcoming holiday of Shavuot is referred to by various names, including Chag Shavuot - the festival of weeks, Chag Ha'Katzir - the festival of the harvest, and Yom HaBikurim - the day of the first fruits.
Throughout the Torah, the upcoming holiday of Shavuot is referred to by various names, including Chag Shavuot - the festival of weeks, Chag Ha'Katzir - the festival of the harvest, and Yom HaBikurim - the day of the first fruits. Yet, throughout the Talmud, Shavuot is referred to by another name that does not appear at all with regard to this holiday in the entire Torah - Atzeret. The names given by the Torah are easily understood. Chag Shavuot refers to the conclusion of the seven weeks of harvest which began after Passover, during which time we counted the omer. Chag Ha'Katzir and Yom HaBikurim are also appropriate names, for on this day the wheat from the new harvest is first used for the offerings in the Temple. However, the name Atzeret, which means "stopping", requires explanation.
The Kedushas Levi, a classic collection of Chassidic discourses, explains that whereas during the holiday of Sukkot we have the mitzvah of sitting in the Sukkah to help us remember the clouds of glory which surrounded our forefathers in the desert, and on Passover we have the mitzvah of eating matzah to commemorate our exodus from Egypt, Shavuot has no special mitzvah to commemorate the giving of the Torah. As a result, the most notable aspect of this festival is our refraining from prohibited labors, making the name Atzeret, stopping, very fitting. On the surface, however, this answer is problematic, for although we have no special mitzvot on Shavuot to represent the giving of the Torah, isn't the fact that we received the Torah on Shavuot special enough on its own to be considered a unique aspect of the day?
After forty years of traveling through the desert, Moses tells the Jewish people, "Be attentive and hear, O Israel: This day you have become a people to Hashem your G-d" (Deuteronomy 27:9). The Talmud (Tractate Berachot 63b) wonders what this means; was the Torah given on that day? Certainly not - the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai almost forty years earlier. If so, then what does the Torah mean by the words "this day"? Rashi, the great medieval commentator, explains that everyday the commandments should be in our eyes as if we entered into the covenant with Hashem today. Each day we must view the Torah as if it was just given to us. With this piece of information, we can now understand why refraining from prohibited labor is the only special characteristic of Shavuot: The giving of the Torah is a daily event, not an annual one, and therefore cannot be limited to any one holiday in the same manner as sitting in the Sukkah or eating matzah.
Everyday when we read the shema prayer, we refer to the daily renewal of the Torah. In both of the first two paragraphs, we are reminded that our command to keep the Torah is a fresh one everyday. The shema is one of the climaxes of our prayers. Yet, since we say it so often, we tend to carelessly utter its words, neglecting their meaning. The Torah tactfully places this message in the shema to tell us that we must not recite the shema by simply repeating the same old words, over and over again, day after day. Rather, we must approach the shema, and all the other mitzvot, enthusiastically, as if we were doing them for the very first time. We all know how excited a teenager is the first time he takes the car out for a spin on his own. Nevertheless, the more he drives the less exciting it becomes. This phenomenon unfortunately manifests itself in Torah observance as well. However, if we know to look out for this decline, we can carefully avoid it. By viewing the Torah and mitzvot as new each day, we can infuse our actions with excitement and meaning.
Every holiday represents an opportunity for renewed inspiration and enthusiasm in the performance of mitzvot and the study of the Torah. Atzeret in particular reminds us that we need not wait for the next holiday to feel the excitement of doing mitzvot, for the Torah is given anew every day.
Avi Lowenstein, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Toras Moshe in Jerusalem.
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