The holiday of Shavuot is unique in the Jewish calendar in that there is no mitzvah ritual one is commanded to perform. It is a day of study and meditation, a day in which we relive the revelation of the Ten Commandments and celebrate the Sinai covenant. It is beautiful to see thousands of people walking to different classes in the streets of Jerusalem until the late hours of the evening.
The essential and organizing principle of Judaism is the study of Torah. On Shavuot we are the people of the book. Learning develops a commitment to God not motivated by reward and punishment. Learning leads to the possibility of love of Torah and undermines any authoritarian approach to Judaism.
The significance of revelation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai is amplified in Deuteronomy 4:12: “The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard the sound of words, but perceived no shape – nothing but a voice.” The God of the Bible is amplified in speech. The God of the Bible is present when one hears and understands that he or she is called upon to take responsibility both for their personal lives and for the life of society. This in the deepest sense is the meaning of mitzvah and of being commanded (mitzuveh).
On Shavuot we learn that God is not a super power who will necessarily protect us under all situations. Covenant is not an infantilizing experience, but rather an empowering one. It calls on Israel to become partners with God.
Covenant is the antithesis to passivity. The paradigmatic model for waiting for God to act on our behalf in history is the Passover story. Israel as a slave people waited for God to break into history and to fight their battles and liberate them. The active partner in the Passover story is God. In Egypt, we were the recipient’s of God’s grace and power. At Sinai, we participated in the call of the covenant, as God called on us to assume the responsibility for our personal lives.
The Zionists rebelled against galut passivity, the long, 2,000-year wait for the messiah to come and take them from slavery and liberate them from oppression and exile. The rebirth of the State of Israel was nurtured by the memory of the covenantal empowerment at Sinai and by the courage of a people to become responsible for their destiny in history.