“Why is it,” Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev was asked, “that Shavuot is also referred to as Atzeret? After all, the Torah uses the term atzeret only in association with the festival of Shemini Atzeret, not Shavuot.”
In reply, he offered three explanations. He taught that all festivals have specific and positive mitzvot associated with their celebration; that is, mitzvot in addition to the prohibition of work that is shared on all Yomim Tovim. For example, on Pesach we are commanded to eat matzah and drink four cups of wine; on Sukkot we dwell in the sukkah and take the daled minim. But on Shavuot we are commanded only to cease from our work. For this reason, Shavuot is known as Atzeret; to signify its only form of Yom Tov.
The Kedushat Levi went on to explain that the names of all Yomim Tovim identify a specific historical event that came to be, in subsequent generations, religiously commemorated. However, the name “Shavuot” does not identify any such event. Rather, it identifies the completion of the mitzvah of sefirat ha’Omer, counting the Omer.
This raises an important question: Why is there a Yom Tov to signify the completion of an action? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to celebrate and rejoice in anticipation of fulfilling a mitzvah, rather than in its completion? After all, we recite the she’hecheyanu prior to observing a mitzvah for exactly this reason – to thank God for allowing us to be able to observe a mitzvah we haven’t had the opportunity to experience for an extended period of time.
Isn’t the feeling of anticipation much greater than the satisfaction of completion?
Judaism teaches that joy and religious ecstasy emanate from accomplishment and fulfillment. For the religious Jew, there is no greater joy than the celebration of a siyyum, the sharing and completion of a significant part of Torah. That said, our experience of joy is defined not only by a feeling of past accomplishments but also by forward-looking anxiety. To have completed something is to confront finality – the end of things. It is for this reason that ardent and committed students of Torah proclaim “hadran ha’lach” – I shall return to you. For them, endings are also pivot points for new beginnings.
A genuine Jew celebrates not only the joys of yesterday but, at the same time, expresses hope for tomorrow. Yesterday without the hopeful tomorrow is too frightening to contemplate. In celebrating the past with an eye to the future, we pivot in time, lingering just long enough in yesterday to celebrate its joys but not so long as to lose our hopes for the morrow.
Ultimately, this “lingering” is the essence of our Shavuot-Atzeret experience. Rashi teaches that our intrinsic need to linger is fundamental to Shemini Atzeret. We need to hold on to our joys and not allow them to come to an abrupt ending – shekashe alai pe’ridatchem. “Shavuot” marks the completion of weeks, of our counting of the Omer. “Atzeret” looks forward, motivating us to continue to embrace the goals towards which we were counting.
Finally, the Kedushat Levi teaches that when a Jew experiences a religious awakening and reaches spiritual heights, there is a natural urge to transform the love, ecstasy and yearning into practical applications. Ramban interprets the verse in the Song of Songs mah tairu u’mah te’oreru et ha’avah ad sh’techpatz to mean that free and unfettered love must find a mode of practical expression.
We Jews are, ultimately, a practical people – a people of doing things in the world. Our religious experience leaves us not in contemplation on mountaintops but in the hustle and bustle of the world performing tikkun haolam. We hold that one should not, indeed cannot, love or worship God theoretically. Religious inspiration and faith demand ad sh’techpatz; it calls for a creation of a chefetz, a keli – an instrument through which to express and manifest our innermost feelings and understandings.
Yet when the Jews at Sinai reached the highest levels of religious exultation and fervor they did not posses any practical means of expression other than the fulfillment of the command to hold back and refrain from “touching the mountain.” They had only a negative precept to perform; a not doing. The Yom Tov then is known as Atzeret to recall the one and only commandment available to our ancestors who stood physically at Sinai; to recall the only “vessel” available to them to translate their deep religious feelings.