A pilgrim festival with agricultural origins? Transformed into a religious commemoration of revelation at Sinai? An event that occurred 3,318 years ago causes us to stay up all night drinking refined blood (a technical descriptor of milk) and ponder the Jewish legal system?
Here’s a nice story about a few million people at the first ever Woodstock convocation, with a few dramatic effects such as a light show, and sound waves with a global echo. The Jewish people, fresh out of slavery, have been coerced to receive the Torah. They were kvetching when they arrived, and they have been kvetching ever since.
Or is there another slightly more complex narrative? Exodus 24:8 suggests Naaseh vNishmah – that the Jewish people accepted they shall obey, and they shall understand (in that order) with a willing and positive attitude. How does this contrast with the Midrash of Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chisdah who says that the mountan was held over the people – implying that their acceptance of Torah was under duress?
Which one was it? The joyous acceptance of the law of Moses, or the intimidation of the experience? Can a person blend the emotions of love and fear into the same religious identity?
The Maharal of Prague explains that the giving of the Torah was so important for the future existence of the world that the acceptance of the Torah by the Jewish nation couldn’t be left to chance. Like good parenting, some matters aren’t open to free choice or preference. At the same time, the imposed nature of Matan Torah was complemented by the voluntary acceptance that followed, and has continued to follow for more than 100 generations.
The way in which Shavuot is celebrated has evolved over the past few decades. Many shules run trendy shiur topics and discussion groups throughout the evening. The more scrupulous overdose on caffeine and bury their heads in a mesechta of gemara until the hashkama minyan. It’s all good, and perhaps accounts for a lack of symbolism associated with the chag. (I mean that in a good way, as we don’t have the distractions of carnivals or other minhagim we are free to focus on what is important and tradtional). But it’s also symptomatic of a change of psyche too – one that is not always so evident to those of us immersed in the mechanics of the modern day tikkun leil.
The modern Jewish “religious culture” is slowly gravitating away from yirat shamaim towards ahavat Hashem. While ultimately there is no contradiction between the two, it is still both gratifying and concerning that this dynamic continues to evolve. In short, religion based on fear alone is not healthy (and not Jewish – and the word fear as a translation does not do justice to the notion of yirah!). At the same time the human condition is motivated in part by yirah and it is a necessary part of the Jewish experience. It helps to contain our ego, moderate our conduct, and focus our neshamot on the merits of sechar vonesh. Ahavat Hashem is also good. Joy, good deeds and concern for ones fellow are absolute tenets of Judaism. However the feel good emotions of being Jewish are not enough as stand alone character traits to allow a person to be completely immersed in their yiddishkeit.
Rabbi Walk notes that there’s so much more than just accepting G-d’s rules and regulations. We must want to incorporate G-dliness into every aspect of our lives. We must desire to understand G-d’s message in the mitzvot. This is why we emphasize the reenactment of the experience at Sinai every year. Shavuot is the renewal of our vow to follow not only the letter of the Law, but its spirit, too.