The past is never dead. It’s not even past. – William Faulkner
We Jews are a people of memories. Our past defines who we are. The past infuses our religious lives with context, purpose and meaning. How could we be if not for knowing how we were?
Our festivals and Yomim Tovim speak to our relationship with our past in unique and powerful ways. However, even in this uniqueness, Shavuot stands out.
Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev offered three explanations as to why Shavuot is also referred to as Atzeret, even though the Torah only uses the term Atzeret in association with the festival of Shemini Atzeret, not Shavuot. First, while labor is forbidden on all Yomim Tovim, festivals have specific practical mitzvah observances associated with their celebration. On Pesach, we eat matzah and drink four cups of wine. On Sukkot, we dwell in the sukkah and take the daled minim. But on Shavuot only the cessation of work is commanded. Thus, Shavuot is known as Atzeret, signifying its only form of Yom Tov.
The Kedushat Levi further explained that the names of all Yomim Tovim reflect a specific historical event to be commemorated in subsequent generations in a religious sense. Shavuot, however, is not a name reflecting any historical event. It is an identifier of time, the completion of the mitzvah of counting Sefirat Ha’Omer. Celebrating a “conclusion” seems at odds with Jewish practice. We celebrate in anticipation of coming celebrations, of the mitzvot to be fulfilled more than those already fulfilled. Our joyous anticipation is the reason for reciting the Shehecheyanu prior to observing a mitzvah rather than at its conclusion.
Even so, Judaism teaches that joy and religious ecstasy are derived from accomplishment and fulfillment. For the religious and learned Jew, there is no greater joy than the joy found in celebrating a siyum – celebrating the privilege and opportunity in having completed a significant part of Torah. The siyum is not unbridled celebration, however. Although it marks completed accomplishment, it does so with full awareness of the anxieties of finality.
We fear completion as much as we celebrate it. Imagine the overwhelming joy of the soon to be celebrated Siyum HaShas – completing of all Shas once in seven years, while simultaneously anxious whether seven years hence I will be able to rejoice yet again. Seven years is a long time. For this reason the committed student of Torah proclaims “Hadran halach” – “I shall return to you.”
The genuine Jew wants not only to celebrate the joys of yesterday, but even more to anticipate the hopes of tomorrow.
This, then, is the essence of the Shavuot Atzeret experience. Rashi comments that it is Shemini Atzeret that focuses on our need to linger, to continue the joys of celebration rather than allow them to come to an abrupt ending – shekashe alai peridatchem. Shavuot marks the completion of the mitzvah of counting the Omer. Atzeret induces us to continue the effect of the goals toward which we counted.
The Kedushat Levi, in concluding that when a Jew experiences a religious awakening and reaches a spiritual elevation he embraces an inner urge to translate the love, ecstasy, and yearning into practical application, is in accord with the Ramban.
The Ramban interprets the verse in the Song of Songs “Mah tairu umah teoreru et ha’ahavah ad shetechpatz” – “That you awaken not, nor stir up love, until it pleases” – to mean that free and unfettered love is mere “sound and fury” unless it finds a mode of practical expression. In the same way, one cannot love or worship God in theory. Religious inspiration and exultation demand ad shetechpatz. Such a religious fervor calls for the creation of chefetz, keli, a vessel through which to express and manifest these innermost feelings and emotions.
The Jews at Sinai obviously reached these highest levels of religious exultation and fervor, but did not as yet possess any practical means of expression other than the fulfillment of the negative command to hold back and refrain from “touching the mountain.” Thus the Yom Tov is known as Atzeret, recalling the one and only commandment, the only “vessel” now available to translate their deep religious feelings.