I’ve always loved the 49-day countdown (count-Up, really) to Shavuot. The building anticipation towards Matan Torah, eagerly breathing in the blooms adorning homes and synagogues, Yom Tov tastebuds rewarded with blintzes and cheesecake, staying up ‘til first light awaiting the arrival of the Torah. Up until this year, the CountUp has reminded me of the direction I’m heading. I’ve always known that the great build up is leading me towards the main event, the crescendo of Shavuot.
This year, I encountered a teaching of the Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev) which invited me into a totally new paradigm. The Kedushat Levi was asked why the holiday of Shavuot is called Atzeret, an assembly or a stopping place. One of his responses to this question opened my heart. One might think, explains the Kedushat Levi, that Shavuot (the Festival of Weeks) would be named for something related to the essence of the day, just like other holidays. Instead, it’s named for something that has already happened, an activity that’s been completed: the counting of seven full weeks, effectively making the essence of the holiday of Shavuot a celebratory ending, a siyyum. Generally at a siyyum, we look back at the main event – the learning – and reminisce about what we’ve learned and what’s transpired. We share our learning with others and rejoice about having completed something of significance. We mark an end to our joy, joy elicited by the process of learning. The Kedushat Levi cites the oft-quoted Rashi about Shemini Atzeret:
About Shemini Atzeret (when HaShem is reputed to have said,) ‘Your departure (Jewish People) is difficult for me.’ To what is this similar? To a prince who invites the king with his entire entourage to a meal. After the meal when the king is ready to head home, he (the prince) says to the king, ‘Your departure is difficult for me. Therefore, stay here so that a person will not depart from his brother.’ … For this we have Shemini Atzeret in order to mark an end to the joy.
Here, the meal has ended. The main event is complete. One more day is requested in order to soften the impending separation.
Through this lens, Shavuot is no longer the crescendo at the end of the counting. The main event has already occurred and Shavuot, in turn, becomes the moment when we signify the completion of something precious. It’s the way we mark an end to our process, a celebration added on to soften the blow of losing something of inestimable value.
And what is it that leaves us yearning for one more day?
The only thing that we’ve done is count. And wait. And, perhaps if we’ve attuned ourselves to such behaviors, we’ve intentionally prepared ourselves for what is to come, taking the time to look inside and do our own work on the way.
Perhaps that’s the subtle unspoken message of the Kedushat Levi. That the main event is in the waiting. That while we’re so busy looking for what comes next, and rushing through our CountUps, the main event is actually taking place. And the moments we’ve historically considered to be simply waiting are the ones intended for looking inside to do our own work along the way. As Kina Grannis sings,
How could I wish away all the in between
And all this time
I’ve been staring at the minute hand
Oh what a crime
That I can’t seem to understand that life is in the waiting
And I find there’s no knowing of a right time
No it could keep you waiting all night for it
Perhaps, suggests the Kedushat Levi, Shavuot isn’t the main event at all. It’s simply the stopping place, the Atzeret, the vantage point from which we look backwards in time towards the main event. For when we honor the journey as the main event, all the need for pomp and circumstance fall away.
All that we want (need?) along that path is Someone to witness our journey; Someone to help us create the vessel within which we can hold all that we’ve become along the way. Perhaps, then, Shavuot is simply the added comfort that one Sacred Friend offers another when they must leave each other’s sweet company for now. And we fill that time of comfort with learning and Torah and food and laughter, to mark an end to the journey of precious waiting.