Why Shavuot doesn’t get the headlines of Pesach and Chanukah
By Rabbi Raphael Tennenhaus
When preparing for Shavuot, the question is often
asked: How come Shavuot, the festival in which G‑d swore eternal devotion to us, and we in turn pledged everlasting loyalty to Him, is relatively obscure, especially compared to Pesach and even Chanukah, a Rabbinical holiday no less? Very often, we hear lengthy explanations, such as the overwhelming power of the Seder, with all the foods, all the customs, many generations of the family gathering for a big Seder, and more. Chanukah has the big menorahs and Chanukah gelt, it’s in a time of the year when partying is very common, and there’s eight days of celebrations.
But Shavuot, one day in Israel and two days in the Diaspora, just doesn’t seem to get the attention it deserves. Sure, there’s the blintzes and cheesecake, the all night learning, and the reading of the Ten Commandments—which the Lubavitcher Rebbe popularized in the late 1970’s by requesting that all children, even tiny infants, be present for reliving the moment when the Jewish People became a Nation—yet despite a greater awareness of this beautiful holiday, especially in the last 35 years, statistics still show that Shavuot is observed by much fewer Jews than the very high percentage who celebrate Pesach and Chanukah, which brings us back to the age old question: why?
Allow me to share some thoughts on this subject, which perhaps will shed some light on this matter.
Shavuot doesn’t get the headlines for the same reason the sun rising each morning isn’t a “breaking story” each and every day. It’s not because it lacks color, drama or theme, but on the contrary, its primary message involves the quintessential aspect of G-d’s oneness with His People, which is beyond any external symbols and celebrations.
Chassidus explains that generally, there are connections to G-d which are revelatory, very visible, and hence filled with many exciting components. On the other hand, there is a connection to G-d that is subtle, but essential, often concealed, yet constantly present. In Chassidic philosophy, these two forms of connections to G-d are by way of Gilui [revelation] and Etzem [essential].
On the surface, Gilui makes more noise. It is more visible, and more often than not, it grabs most of the headlines. Etzem on the other hand is discreet, often not noticeable, and can be easily overlooked.
Chassidus places great emphasis on Etzem, the essential connection to G-d, and for that matter, the Etzem aspects of Torah and Mitzvahs. Reasons for Mitzvos are Gilui, a revelatory understanding of why we do certain Mitzvahs. Etzem of Mitzvos are higher than reason. It’s the level of Mitzvos which are done because Hashem said so. Gilui of Torah is the revelations of Torah teachings that one can fully understand. Etzem of Torah is the connection to Torah that is higher, beyond understanding.
Just like Torah and Mitzvoth have both the Gilui aspect and the Etzem aspect, so too our connection to Hashem, as a people, has these same two general aspects. Our souls are connected to Hashem by way of Gilui; there is a revealed, noticeable connection between a Jewish soul and G-d. On a higher level, our bodies are connected to Hashem by way of Etzem, but not because they are special, on the contrary. Jewish soul is special, for as it says in Tanya, it is a literal part of G-d, but our bodies are not special.
Yet when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, Hashem chose our bodies, not our souls, because you can’t choose something that is special. No choice is needed for that. Choice can only apply to things that are equal. But by choosing our bodies at Mount Sinai, an essential connection and bond was established with the Jewish people.
For this reason, before the Jews left Egypt, many of them perished. Their bad behavior warranted their demise. Gilui, their open and revealed connection to G-d, was a must in order for them to stay connected.
On Shavuot, when G-d chose our bodies, Gilui played a less central theme, as our bond to G-d became indivisible, and from that point onward, a Jew could never detach himself from Hashem. His Etzem connection, although not visible, was and is unbreakable and unshakable.
All of the above gives us an appreciation of why Shavuot doesn’t get the headlines of Pesach and Chanukah. Its central theme focuses on non-Gilui, or non-revelatory aspects of Torah, of the Mitzvahs and of our connection to G-d. But not to worry, this essential, non-headline grabbing aspect of Shavuot will “have its day”. When Moshiach comes, very soon. May we merit this “revelation of the essence” now!