The Torah portion of Emor describes the Jewish holidays of the year; the Sages of Europe would say that a glow from all those holidays permeates this Shabbos. Therefore, it is appropriate to explore the relationship between two of those celebrations, Passover and Shavuos.
Shavuos has several names: Zman Matan Toraseinu (“Time of the giving of the Torah”), Shavuos (“oaths” or “weeks”) and Atzeres (“capstone celebration”). We can certainly understand the time of Matan Torah. The meanings associated with Shavuos are also easy to understand. “Oaths” refers to the pledge every Jewish person made at the base of Mount Sinai, when they proclaimed, “Everything Hashem says, we will do.” The definition of Shavuos as “weeks” is also clear — the seven-week period leading to the holiday. But why is the holiday called Atzeres? How does Shavuos represent the capstone of Passover and the Exodus?
Passover marked the birth of the Jewish nation. On Passover, Hashem energized Jewish souls for all time, as the Haggadah states, “And Hashem took them out of Egypt, not through an angel, not through a spiritual representative (saraph), not through an emissary; but through the Holy One Blessed is He in His Essence and Glory.” Hashem chose the Jewish people to be His people, taking from the depths of impurity to the heights of sanctity.
It also required empowering the people to reflect His Kingship on Earth. This occurred with the giving of the Torah on Har Sinai. which changed the nature of reality. Until that time, spirituality was confined to the heavens.
With the giving of the Torah, Hashem eliminated the barrier that separated the heavens from earth, so that holiness could permeate the physical world. For example, animal skin could be used for a Sefer Torah or Tefillin. Grain and animals could be offered as sacrifices in the Holy Temple. For the first time, spirituality (i.e., holiness) could be brought down within the confines of our mundane existence.
Sefiros HaOmer (“Counting the Omer”) serves as the link between Passover and Shavuos. The Omer was an amount of barley that was offered on the first day after Passover. During Sefiros HaOmer, we mark 49 days to Matan Torah. The word sefiros means “counting.” But it is also related to the word, sapir, meaning “shine.” During this time, we prepare to accept the Torah, not by engaging the Jewish soul; it already was sanctified at Passover. Rather, Sefiros HaOmer elevates the animal soul that enlivens the Jewish body. Chassidus teaches us that there seven emotional attributes: kindness, strength, beauty/harmony, victory, splendor, foundation and kingship. Each attribute is composed of all seven. Thus, the 49 attributes correspond to the 49 days between Passover and Shavous. Each day refines one of the animal soul’s emotional attributes. Yet why do we need to refine the animal soul when Hashem picked the Jewish neshama?
The answer lies in the reason for creation itself! If Hashem just desired Jewish souls, there was no need for materiality. Rather, the giving of the Torah was primarily for the animal soul within the Jew. Only through the Torah can the Jewish neshama in a human body sanctify material world.
With this we can understand another question. Every Jewish holiday is associated with a specific mitzvah. But there is no biblical mitzvah associated with Shavuos. Practices such as learning Torah all night and eating cheesecake are only customs, not commandments.
Shavuos stands apart because the Torah applies to all areas of life. Furthermore, the animal soul plays a vital part in elevating the physical. Had the Sages declared learning Torah (or performing any other activity) to be a commandment, it would have been easy to miss the point of the holiday. Hashem gave the Torah so that Jewish souls in bodies could learn Torah and perform mitzvos, thereby elevating materiality and preparing it for the coming of Mashiach. Viewed from this perspective, Shavuos really serves as an Atzeres, as the capstone and culmination of Passover. PJC
Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum is CEO of Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh and rabbi of Congregation Kesser Torah.