The Fiftieth Miracle

Traditions Shavuot

No two festivals on the Jewish calendar are more coupled than Passover and Shavuot, and no two festivals seem further apart conceptually.

By Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe from Chabad.org

We proceed from Passover to Shavuot along the pathway of the 49-day Omer Count which delineates them both. The Omer period always begins on the second day of Passover and ends with Shavuot. Shavuot is defined by the Torah as the day following the Omer Count—the 50th day after Passover. Shavuot is thus the only festival on our calendar not set by the date of the month but by its position vis-a-vis another holiday: Passover defines Shavuot.

Yet when we look at these two festivals, we discover that they represent different, even opposite, ideas. Passover is called by the Torah the festival of “leaping” (pesach). We leap out of exile on the heels of ten supernatural plagues. We are guided across a sea that splits open and then engulfs our pursuers in a process that violates every law of physics and chemistry. A nation of slaves, uncoiled a mere six days from the fetishism of Egyptian idolatry, perceives “more than the prophets” and sings a sublime song of transcendent beauty!

In contrast, Shavuot is called by the Torah Chag Habikkurim “The Festival of the First Fruits.” In the Temple Period, it marked the beginning of the wheat harvest and the first use of the new crop by a communal offering of loaves of wheat-bread in the Temple as thanks for blessings of the harvest.

Shavuot also marks the giving of the Torah, which, though a supernatural experience, actually marked the beginning of the era of the natural, the human and the ordinary in Jewish life. From the moment the Torah was given to the Jewish people, G-d decreed that “It is not in the heavens” but in our world. Only human beings can interpret the Torah and its rulings. After Sinai, G-d’s voice—by His own choice—cannot itself issue a ruling on the practice of Judaism. Furthermore, all of the Torah’s precepts (mitzvot) are defined as certain actions that are done with certain objects in precise mandates of time, mass, volume and space—the very boundaries of the natural world.

Nevertheless, the primary name used for this festival, Shavuot [“weeks”], refers to the seven weeks of the Omer, seven weeks of a seamless continuum which define Passover and Shavuot as a single entity.

We are told by the Talmud that a farmer “believes in the Life Source of the Worlds and (therefore) sows.” At first glance, this seems a poor example of faith—one sows because it is a fact of nature that sowing seed brings a harvest in its wake, and we all need to eat.

In truth, this is the whole point of the progression and growth that we experienced as a people in those momentous seven weeks between the first Passover and that first Shavuot.

To see G-d in the “fireworks” of the Egyptian Exodus is something that even a child can do. As our sages say, “A child at the splitting of the sea saw more than the prophet Ezekiel.” Indeed, how could he not? It is obvious that the “Hand of G-d” is at work in the wholesale upending of the natural order.

Far deeper and more mature is the understanding that the natural cycle is no less a miracle than the splitting of the Red Sea and all the miraculous drama of the Exodus. Both flow exclusively from G-d’s essence. The only difference between the natural and the miraculous is frequency.

It is an axiom of Judaism that creation is an ongoing process. At every moment, the flow of divine energy is being condensed into the stuff of our bodies and souls and of every entity in all universes; were it to cease for even a split second, we would cease to exist instantaneously and utterly—it would be as if we had never existed. So it is clear that no accomplishment can be made, no purpose attained, without the energy for it flowing from the Source of all life.

This is reality; we need only to look beneath the surface of things to perceive it. Sometimes it leaps above the surface on its own—that is a miracle. When that happens, seeing is no longer a choice: it is there before our eyes.

When our perception is driven by the force of the novel and the spectacular, we are passive bystanders—we are “forced” into recognizing our relationship to G-d. But when we choose to see G-d’s essence in the first green shoot of wheat, this is our accomplishment. We have found G-d not as an external force impacting our world, but as the very fabric of our seemingly ordinary being.

Nature exists because G-d chose the natural order as the default option for all time. Miracles, on the other hand, are a concession to the human need to see things from a different perspective in order to apprehend what they’ve already seen.

G-d entrusted us with a “natural” existence because G-d has faith in our capacity to find the essential, reflected in each moment of our lives and in each strand of the natural world.

G-d takes us from the obviousness of Passover and impels us, with confidence in our success, to the subtlety of Shavuot. This is because as much as we think of “faith” as our belief in G-d, there is an equally significant faith—the faith G-d has in us. G-d knows that with the light contained within Torah we have sufficient illumination to find and live the G-dliness that is the core of each being and the fabric of every moment.

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