By Rabbi Dr. RAYMOND APPLE
In the synagogue in which I was brought up, Shavuot attracted a much smaller crowd than any other festival. My rabbi held office at that synagogue for many decades and his verdict was simple: “It’s just like Cinderella”.
In the old fairy tale Cinderella was the poor girl whom nobody valued until at last she found her prince.
That’s what Shavuot is like, said my rabbi: a neglected treasure which nobody appreciates properly, though one day they will.
The problem of Shavu’ot is that it lacks the drama of Pesach: it has no seder, matzah, Mah Nishtanah or Dayyenu. It has none of the things that bring the four sons back to the family table long after they have grown up, rebelled and left home.
It does have its cheesecake and blintzes, but they cannot compete with the matzah.
Shavuot also lacks the colour and ceremony of Sukkot, with its lulav-waving and synagogue processions, not to speak of erecting the sukkah and eating al fresco despite the unpredictable climatic intrusions of wind, cold and rain. No wonder that when we sat in our London sukkah we wore hats, coats and scarves and still shivered, and sometimes we simply had to retreat to the house.
If Shavuot lacks the excitement of Pesach and Sukkot, it certainly can’t compete with the vivid, people-centered festivities of Chanukah and Purim.
If the truth be told, the Revelation theology of Shavuot is uniquely majestic and memorable, but most people can’t rise to that intellectual and ethereal level. If they could, it would be Cinderella finding her prince.
In the meantime, however eloquent the rabbis wax about Revelation, about religion and eternal truth, it’s all too highfalutin for most people.
My view is that the unpopularity of Shavuot has to do with fear— fear that the ugly duckling will become a swan and make things worse for the ordinary person.
On a superficial level there is the fear that we might have to take the Torah seriously and become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” That’s too threatening for most people, who prefer a quiet, unchallenged life.
They would rather be fallible and inconsistent, comfortable with their own mix of Jewish ideas and usages but daunted by the stern requirements of full observance, not only the outward signs like Shabbat and kashrut, but the spirituality that might make us really face up to God (and ourselves)… and the ethics that would hold us back from the fast buck to give respect to other people, even, especially, those of a different colour, creed or commitment.
There is a deeper level of fear too. Let’s look back to Pesach. There are really two Pesachs — the overt, historical one we celebrate at the seder, and the hidden or metaphorical one which is part of our prayers every day of the year, which speak of leaving Egypt and the blessings of freedom.
The first Pesach inaugurated our history as a people. It also launched our career as the world’s teacher of morality (“a light unto the nations”), dedicated to freedom, human rights and dignity. This is central at the seder. It represents the Pesach principle of freedom, oscillating in word, song and symbol between the bitterness of slavery and the joy of release.
Yet Pesach is nothing without Shavuot. They are part of one another, tied together by the seven weeks of the Omer. They seem to stand for incompatible principles, freedom and law, the constraining of freedom. It seems that after the bondage, the Israelites hardly got a taste of freedom before being restrained and restricted.
The sages had an explanation. “No-one,” they said, “is free unless they are subject to the Torah”. A paradox. There is no such thing as freedom, at least in the sense of being absolutely free. Only God has that kind of freedom. Only He is the unmoved mover.
The Israelites who left Egypt had a dream: “Now we’re free, we’ll go where we want, we’ll do what we wish, we’ll live as we desire.” Shavuot put an end to the dream. That’s why they were afraid; that’s why we are all afraid when Shavuot approaches — afraid that God is going to catch us and curtail our freedom.
The sages replied, though not in these words, “Freedom? What freedom?”
Rav Soloveitchik asked, “Is man ever truly free? Is he not a prisoner of natural law, subject to the caprices of his state of health, the intrusion of accidents, and the ever hovering specter of possible death? These are physiological constraints. Man is also subject to social pressures: the mores of his society, the biases of his family, and the prejudices of his class. In reality, supposedly free man is buffeted, pressured, coerced, and restricted in his options, even if no human taskmaster hovers over him…”
Man is constantly subject to influences. He will never be off the leash. At best he has a choice between leashes, a choice between constraints.
He can opt for or accept man-made pressures or restrictions which turn him into a toy of other people or situations, or a life under God which enables him to become what he has the capacity to be.
Erich Fromm says, “Positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality.” Abba Hillel Silver says, “A man is free only when he has an errand on earth.” Ahad HaAm says, “What is national freedom if not a people’s inner freedom to cultivate its abilities.”
Rabindranath Tagore says, “I have on my desk a violin string. It is not fixed into my violin. It is free to move, to be blown anywhere. What it cannot do is make music. But when I fasten it into my violin, it is no longer free to move. But it is free for the first time to make music.”
Our choice is not between freedom and unfreedom. It is the freedom to choose our master — to choose between humans and God. With God we are likely to get a better deal.
When we realize that truth, Shavuot will no longer be a Cinderella but remain a princess.
Rabbi Raymond Apple was for many years Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesman on Jewish religious issues. After serving congregations in London, Apple was chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, for 32 years. He also held public roles, particularly in the fields of chaplaincy, interfaith dialogue and FreemasonryNow retired, he lives in Jerusalem and blogs at http://www.oztorah.com