What is the relationship between Pesach and Shavuos?
Rabbi Naftali Jaeger, rosh yeshiva of Sh’or Yoshuv, relates in the name of the Ishbitzer Rebbe a striking metaphor:
Think about an egg. An egg on the Seder plate reminds us of the korban chagigah. In addition, we eat an egg as part of the Seder meal. Why is an egg significant?
There is nothing else like an egg. It is born twice. First, the egg is laid by the mother bird. But where is the baby? Still inside. The baby then has to peck its way out. Following this laborious work, the egg cracks open and the little bird emerges.
This birth is a two-part process: first the egg is laid and then it hatches.
And so it is with us. We are born twice: physically on Pesach and spiritually on Shavuos.
We entered Mitzrayim as seventy souls, and in Mitzrayim we became a nation. As it says in the Haggadah, “The Aramean sought to destroy my father [Jacob], and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, with a family few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty and numerous.”
In Mitzrayim we were born physically. When we left, we were still at mem-tes sha’are tumah, the forty-ninth level of impurity. We were not in a condition to receive the Torah.
We marched forty-nine days to Har Sinai, under the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu. By the time we arrived at Har Sinai on the forty-ninth day, we had climbed forty-nine steps and had worked our way up to the level at which we could receive the Torah. We still needed a lifetime (or perhaps millennia, on a national level) to absorb the Torah and reach our full potential, but at least we had shed some of the impurity of Mitzrayim.
On Shavuos, Am Yisrael was able to “crack the shell” of our enslavement to the culture of Mitzraim. Inside that shell we were unable to embrace the Torah, but we broke out. At Har Sinai we became a spiritually unique nation.
This is the two-part process of our birth.
Now, as we reach Shavuos, we have been “pecking at the inside of the shell” since Pesach, and we are ready to emerge. We accomplished much spiritual work during Sefirah. Am Yisrael had to shed the impurity that engulfed us in Mitzrayim. Today we have exactly the same job.
Indeed, Sefira is historically a period of challenge for Am Yisrael, and our response to challenge has always been to work on ourselves spiritually. During this period we begin to study Pirkei Avos, whose purpose is ethical refinement.
The language of counting the Omer itself clearly delineates our focus: “You commanded us through Moshe Your servant, to count the Omer to cleanse us from our encrustations of evil and from our contaminations…so that the souls of Your people Israel be cleansed of their contamination. Therefore, may it be Your will, Hashem…that in the merit of the Omer count I have counted…may there be corrected whatever blemish I have caused…. May I be cleansed and sanctified with the holiness of Above, and through this may abundant bounty flow in all the worlds. And may it correct our lives, spirits and souls from all sediment and blemish; may it cleanse us and sanctify us with Your exalted holiness, Amen.”
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So, just what we are supposed to do with this Torah we are accepting on the Great Day of Shavuos, and where do we want to go with it?
I would like to extend Rabbi Jaeger’s egg metaphor beyond Shavuos and apply it to the entire Yom Tov cycle. What in fact happens to that little bird that emerges from the egg? What should it do when it cracks through the shell and blinks its eyes in the bright new world?
The holidays have a cycle, a beginning and an end. Many years ago, before my wife and I embraced Torah, life was totally different. Today each day, each week and each month have a structure. A week begins on Yom Rishon (Sunday) and progresses toward its end on Shabbos Kodesh. This of course parallels the account of creation, which takes place on six days and culminates on the seventh.
But if you don’t live by the Torah, there is no beginning or end to your life. Life is a carousel that rotates during your time on earth – and then suddenly the music stops. Life is over, but you went nowhere. You revolved around and around but you ended up exactly where you began. Your life had no goal. Each day was exactly the same. When you are finally laid in the ground, you are the same dust you were at birth.
No wonder there’s such frustration out there.
Torah life is totally different. Like Yaakov Avinu, we view life as a ladder on which we can ascend from this world all the way upward to Shamayim and become angelic beings. Let’s go back to before Pesach. Where does it all begin?
The Yom Tov cycle begins as it does in the Torah, in a time before time, when “the earth was astonishingly empty, with darkness upon the surface of the deep and the Divine Presence hovered upon the surface of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light.’ ”
Each winter, under a blanket of snow, the earth goes to sleep. When spring comes, the earth awakens. The cold, hard soil softens and warms up, the sap flows in the trees, buds appear and magnificent spring flowers burst upon the world. This awakening is the season of Passover, the rebirth of the world.
No wonder the haftarah for Shabbos Chol HaMoed Pesach contains the famous passage (Yechezkel 37:1 ff): “[God] said to me, ‘Prophesy over these bones and say to them, Oh dry bones, hear the words of God…. I prophesied as I had been commanded; the spirit entered them and they lived and they stood upon their feet, a very vast multitude.”
Pesach is the first of all the holidays. It begins after the sleep of winter and represents new, awakening life. In Mitzrayim, Am Yisrael was born as a nation. We entered as seventy souls and emerged as millions. We became a nation in an alien world that enslaved us and into which we assimilated and almost disappeared.
But we did not disappear. Miraculously we grew and became strong.
In Mitzrayim, the “egg” was laid; the young nation emerged as a separate entity, but its mission was still latent, encased, as it were, in an opaque shell. It became our job to “peck” out of the darkness. As it says concerning Yaakov and Eisav in the womb, “the children agitated within her” (Bereishis 25:22).
Then what happened? Our ancestors left Mitzrayim, crossed the Red Sea, and marched through the Desert for seven weeks until we reached Har Sinai. Receiving the Torah was our spiritual birth.
We worked hard to crack the egg. That’s when we got our wings and learned we could fly. The Torah enables us to soar above the earth, to separate ourselves from the influences that hold other nations captive. “[God] took [Abraham] outside” (Bereishit 15:5). Rashi says that means God “took [Abraham] out of the space of the world and raised him above the stars.” This is the secret of our ability to survive what no other nation could survive and live in a way unknown to the rest of the world.
But the Yom Tov cycle does not stop at Shavuos. What happens next?
After Shavuos comes the summer. This is a time of freedom, but freedom offers challenges. One must be very cautious not to get carried away. The lowest point in our calendar, Tisha B’Av, comes during the summer. During this time of freedom, we tend to let our guard down.
Hashem tells us in the Shema, “I will provide grass in your field for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware lest your heart be seduced and you turn astray and serve gods of others and bow to them. Then the wrath of God will blaze against you…and you will swiftly be banished from the goodly land which Hashem gives you….”
Do you know when we have to “beware”? When we “eat and [are] satisfied…” That’s the danger point. When the little bird cracks open the egg, the question is: What will he do? Will he flex his wings and fly? Will he remain earthbound? Will he soar or plod on the earth?
Summer represents our mature years. What are we going to do with our lives? What are we going to do with this Torah we receive on Shavuos? Are we going to absorb it into our souls? Are we going to fly? Our Father Jacob dreamed of a ladder to the heavens. Will we climb that ladder?
During Sefiras HaOmer, we prepared ourselves for Shavuos. As we say twice a day in the Shema, “Let these matters that I command you today be upon your heart. Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the road, when you retire and you arise.”
Summer represents our adult years during which, as mature beings, we work to accomplish our life’s goals. The end of summer, the month of Elul, is like the later years of our lives because at the end of life we will all be required to give an account of ourselves.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are like our “final exam.” On Yom Kippur we wear white, which indicates we have lived a clean life. We are going to try to live out our entire year, our entire life, in such a way that we will be able to justify wearing white on Yom Kippur. And white is the color we wear in the grave.
But life does not end for us in the grave. Remember, we have been “taken out” from the cycle of life and death. We have been permitted to step off the carousel. Instead of going round and round in an eternal circle, we are able to ascend upward to dwell with the King of the Universe.
After Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we reach the end of the Yom Tov cycle.
The sukkah represents our final reward, our permanent spiritual home. Why is the sukkah like a spiritual home? Because it offers no physical protection whatsoever. The rain comes through the sechach; the sun shines through and the stars are visible at night.
The sukkah represents the home we have built for ourselves over the course of the year, which represents the course of our life. Our reward for a serious life is to dwell in an eternal spiritual home with our fathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, Yosef haTzaddik, Moshe Rabbeinu, Aharon haKohen and Dovid haMelech just as we dwell in the sukkah with the ushpizin.
We can therefore say that the Yom Tov cycle represents our entire existence, from before birth to after death, from the dust to the Heavens.
I was looking the other day at one of those gorgeous trees loaded with pink blossoms. Is there anything else that can compare to spring? I wondered: Why do those incredibly beautiful displays last only a few weeks? Why not the entire year? And then I realized that the natural cycle resembles the Yom Tov cycle we have just described. As King David says, “The heavens declare the glory of God and the expanse of the sky tells of His handiwork” (Tehillim 19).
The spring parallels youth, when everything is fresh and beautiful. The summer reflects our mature years, and at the end of the summer there is a harvest, when the results of our life’s work become clear. In the autumn, the leaves fall off and winter comes, which parallels the end of life.
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In light of these thoughts, what shall we have in mind on Shavuos? We are living in the midst of a world that has gone astray to such an extent that its very existence is endangered. How can we make our life count?
Recently, an article from a popular magazine was brought to my attention. Consider these words, which characterize the society in which we dwell: “Nothing feels better than being fully in love with yourself! Just love yourself fully and completely. Dedicate yourself to loving yourself more.”
This is how the surrounding culture guides itself.
But we – lehavdil – march to a different tune. We say, twice a day, “Shema Yisrael… You shall love Hashem, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your resources.”
Soon we will live in the world of Mashiach, a world of Torah and Truth, in which Am Yisrael will be the “head and not the tail” and we will return to our ancient ways of purity and spiritual greatness.
“Thus said Hashem: I recall for you the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials, your following Me into the Wilderness, into an unsown land” (Yirmiah 2:2).
Soon Hashem will rescue us. We will take the Torah we receive on Shavuos and soar with it on Wings of Eagles. May we all see that day arrive speedily in our time.Roy S. Neuberger
About the Author: Roy Neuberger’s latest book, “Working Toward Moshiach,” is now available in Israel and the U. S. His book “2020 Vision” is available in English, Hebrew, Spanish, French, Russian, and Georgian. Roy is also the author of “From Central Park To Sinai: How I Found My Jewish Soul,” available in English, Hebrew, Russian, and Georgian, and “Worldstorm: Finding Meaning and Direction Amidst Today’s World Crisis.” Roy and his wife, Leah, speak publicly on topics related to his books and articles. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Website: www.2020vision.co.il.
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