Every holiday in the Jewish calendar is associated with a specific date, with one exception: Shavuos. In the present era, when the Jewish calendar is set, Shavuos is always celebrated on the 6th of Sivan, but according to Scriptural Law, the holiday is not necessarily associated with that date. The Torah tells us to count 49 days, beginning on the second night of the Pesach holiday and then, on the fiftieth day, to celebrate the holiday of Shavuos. Now originally, the Jewish calendar was dependent on the sighting of the moon. Ordinarily, the month of Nissan would have 30 days and Iyar would have 29 days and Shavuos would be celebrated on the 6th of Sivan. Nevertheless, at times, both the months of Nissan and Iyar would have 30 days, and Shavuos would be celebrated on the 7th of Sivan; at other times, both months would have 29 days and Shavuos was celebrated on the 5th of Sivan.

Now this is not a historical curiosity. It is a lesson in spiritual dynamics. Shavuos completes a cycle that begins on Pesach and continues through the Counting of the Omer. Pesach is the time when we leave Egypt, i.e., transcend the boundaries and limitations that confine our spiritual experience.

For this reason, when given permission to leave, the Jewish people fled Egypt. Directly after the Ten Plagues, the Egyptians would have done anything the Jews said. Why then did the Jews flee? Because they were scared that if they did not leave Egypt immediately, they would become so mired in Egypt that they would never want to leave.

During their journey in the desert, they anticipated receiving the Torah. As they proceeded towards Mount Sinai, they worked on refining their characters to make themselves fit for this experience. We relive this process each year during the Counting of the Omer. Each of the days is associated with a particular element of our personalities. As we refine ourselves, we make ourselves a fitting vessel for G‑d to give the Torah.

Nevertheless, no matter how much work we do to refine ourselves, all we can do is make ourselves ready to receive the Torah. It cannot be otherwise. For man is a created being and thus, immeasurably distant from G‑d, his Creator. Every created being is by definition limited, brought into being in a specific manner, with a given set of criteria defining who and what it is. G‑d, the Creator, is above that framework of reference entirely.

That’s why the Giving of the Torah marks a fundamental turning point in the world’s spiritual history. It’s not only that this is when G‑d singled the Jews out as His chosen people and gave them a spiritual mission that they have carried forth ever since. It is that by doing so, He gave man a chance to step beyond the mortal realm and do things that are G‑dly.

When a person understands a Torah idea, it is not merely that he has comprehended a profound idea or found a guide for his conduct. His mortal mind has the opportunity to grasp an eternal Divine truth. Similarly, when a person performs a mitzvah, he is relating to G‑d on His frequency. The act he performs may not necessarily appear important in human terms, but it speaks to G‑d on His terms. It is what He asked and desires man to do.

Looking to the Horizon

Shavuos is yahrzeit of the Baal Shem Tov. R. Pinchas of Koritz gave the following analogy to explain the Baal Shem Tov’s place in Jewish history. In previous generations, there were no illuminated highways. When people would journey from one place to another, there was a natural tendency for them to look back to the city from which they departed. They would see its lights in the distance and draw strength from the sight. Even after the lights were no longer visible, they would continue looking back, for the knowledge that their journey had a starting point reassured them that they were not merely wandering aimlessly. Then at a given point in their journey, their focus would change. They would see the glimmer of the lights of the city to which they were going and the sight would engender new inner strength. For even though it was distant, the sight of their destination allowed them to continue with renewed vigor.

In the analogue, throughout the journey through exile, the Jews would look back to the Temple for their inspiration. In the early generations, it was a powerful memory. Afterwards, it became a mere recollection, but at all times, it was the polestar from which their course was set. From the revelation of the Baal Shem Tov onward, not only did our people “know from where you came,” they could also perceive “to where you are going.” For the Baal Shem Tov made the coming of Mashiach a palpable goal, something that could be appreciated not merely as a hope for the distant future, but a dynamic that is in the process of happening.