Shavuot: Touching the Infinite and Eternal

Shavuot is a joyous festival where the synagogue is decorated with flowers and other greenery. The Torah (Exodus 23:16) calls Shavuot “the harvest festival, the first fruits of your labor in planting your fields.” It is a time of thanksgiving, when we offer to God the fruits of our labors during the past year.

In the Temple period, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the first fruits was a time of great joy and anticipation. This is how the Talmud (Mishnah Bikkurim) describes it:

“All the townspeople in the area would gather in the district capital and would spend the night in the city square…When they arose, the official would announce: ‘Come, let us ascend to Zion, the House of God, our Lord’…

“An ox walked before them at the head of the procession, its horns covered with gold, a garland of olive leaves on its head. A flutist would play before them until they reached the outskirts of Jerusalem.

“When they reached the outskirts of Jerusalem, they would send a messenger (to announce their impending arrival) and they would decorate their bikkurim – their offering of first fruits. The officers, the deputies and the treasurers would come out to greet them being proportional to the number of those ascended. The tradesmen of Jerusalem would stand to greet them, declaring: ‘Our brethren from such-and-such a place, come in peace!’

“The flutist would play before them until they reached the Temple Mount…When the pilgrims came to the Temple courtyard, the Levites would begin to sing: ‘I exalt You, God, for You have raised me and not allowed my enemies to rejoice in my shortcomings.’ (Psalm 30:1-2)

“While the basket was still on his shoulder, the one bringing it would recite the following passage from the Torah (Deut. 26: 1-10):

‘I have declared today before God our Lord that I have come to the land that God swore to our forefathers that he would give to us…my forefathers were subservient to an Aramean and went down to Egypt to dwell there…and there they became a great, powerful, and numerous people…and the Egyptians treated us harshly, torturing us and forcing us to do hard labor. And we cried out to God, the Lord of our forefathers…and God heard our cries and God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And He brought us to this place and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land which God gave to me’.

“He then places the basket next to the altar, prostrates himself and leaves.” [1]

So Shavuot is a time of joy and thanksgiving. But Shavuot is not just a harvest festival; it is also a time of holy convocation, where we relive the experience of the Jewish people when they received the Torah on Mount Sinai. On Shavuot morning, we read in the synagogue, the passage from the Torah that describes the day of the revelation: we see the thunder and lightning that rent the sky, feel the trembling that shook the earth, and hear the awesome Heavenly voice speaking out of the midst of a mountain covered in dense cloud and blazing fire.

These two themes: the awe of revelation and the joy of first fruits stand at the center of this holyday. Together they have inspired each generation of the Jewish people to give themselves over to God anew.

What is the relationship between these two aspects of Shavuot? What is it that unites the first fruits of the harvest with the revelation on Mount Sinai?

The Baal Shem teaches that the exile in Egypt was both a physical exile and an exile of consciousness – a galut hadaat. In Egypt, the Israelites were immersed in material consciousness. They doubted the very existence of God. They were trapped in a kind of negative fatalism – a belief that there was a “natural order” that “destined” them to be slaves. They looked on all thoughts of freedom as a foolish fantasy or a dangerous delusion.

In order to lift the Israelite nation out of this “slave consciousness” God chose as His vehicle a series of great supernatural miracles. These miracles overturned the natural order and exposed the frailty and helplessness of the Egyptians. All of these miracles, from the plague of blood unto the splitting of the Red Sea, had one simple message: There is a God who is the Master of the World. [2]

The revelation of this truth came to its culmination with the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. The Torah tells us that at Mount Sinai, the Israelites “saw the voices.” At the moment of Divine contact, the people transcended the physical reality of the senses and touched the infinite and eternal reality of God. This was the “first fruits” of the redemption – the tangible expression of the change in consciousness wrought by the exodus from Egypt.

Rebbe Nachman of Brastlav teaches that the essence of the experience of revelation is harchavat hada’at – an expansion of consciousness or “widening of the mind.” In this state of heightened awareness, we link with the universal consciousness that underlies all living things and get a tiny glimpse of God’s Eternal Plan. As a result of this “transcendent experience”, we receive a new perspective on life in this world, and a greater understanding of the purpose of our existence. [3]

The Baal Shem Tov taught: “You are where your thoughts are.” [4] We can be in a crowded room full of people, but if we are thinking of a secluded cliff overlooking the sea – then we are alone. On the other hand, we can be on our own in the most breath-taking spot in the world, but if we are thinking about our business affairs, then we will not experience anything of the great beauty of the place.

Our mind creates the reality we live in. Our thoughts determine the nature of our life.

Rebbe Nachman adds that all lacks that a person has: be it livelihood, children, or health, or anything else – all come from a lack in consciousness. A person may have every good thing in life, but if he lacks a good state of consciousness, everything that he has is worth nothing. And a person may lack every comfort, but if he has the right state of consciousness, then his lack does not affect him and means nothing to him:

Our perception of wholeness or lack is dependent solely on our state of consciousness.

In the above teaching, Rebbe Nachmman quotes a saying of the Rabbis from the Talmud (Nidarim 41) to support his premise:

Daat kaneetah, ma chasartah; daat chasartah, ma kaneeta”: “If you have acquired knowledge – what do you lack; and if you lack knowledge – what have you acquired?”

The literal translation of the word daat is knowledge, but it has a very specific meaning when it is used in the Kabbalah. The Kabbalah speaks of three aspects of the mind: hochmah, binah and daat – wisdom, understanding and knowledge.

Hochmah – wisdom is that which we garner from the experiences of life – the compassion, caring and skill that we develop in approaching the myriad of experiences that life throws our way.

Binah – understanding is the next level. Binah is when we know “one thing from another.” Through binah we see the interrelationship between all of existence. Through binah we reach a profound vision of the character of that which we call life.

Then we come to daat, knowledge. The term daat is not knowledge as we commonly think of it; it is an intuitive impression of the essence of a thing. It is a type of direct experience where we merge with the object of our investigation; where we know its true nature, as it exists in the Mind of God.

A common analogy that is used by the mystics to explain this type of knowledge is the phrase in the Bible {Genesis 4:1): “and Adam knew his wife Eve.” It is this kind of intimate knowledge that is at the heart of the moment of revelation. It leads to a change in perspective and a growth in awareness that is the catalyst for all spiritual evolution.

It is in light of this inner knowledge that Rebbe Nachman interprets the meaning of the above Talmudic saying: If you reach the state of consciousness where you “know” God, then there is nothing else that you need; but if you are without the knowledge of God, then all possessions in the world will not fill your sense of emptiness.

Our state of consciousness, then, is the key to our experience of life. It can uplift us amidst moments of darkness or send us crashing down in the moment of our greatest joy. The key to establishing a strong state of consciousness is to raise our mind up to God. We do this by focusing our life on higher goals and a broader purpose, and by learning to view reality through “God-colored” glasses.

The expansion of consciousness is the basis of all religious experience. In the moment of revelation the prophet or seer is able to transcend physical reality and touch the infinite and eternal. Then, after he has returned to normal consciousness – he tries to put his vision into words.

The essence of the revelation at Mount Sinai was such a great expansion in consciousness. The vision that Moshe received on Mount Sinai became the basis for the Jewish religion and the spiritual mission of Israel. It changed the identity of the Jewish people forever, transforming them from a nation of slaves into a chosen people with a Divine purpose and the collective experience of the presence of God.

Touching the eternal place of this original inspiration is what the holyday of Shavuot is all about. Shavuot is an opportunity for us to open ourselves to a new, more expansive vision of life, an opportunity to let go of all our preconceived notions; an opportunity to overcome all the fears, dogmas and prejudices to which we have become enslaved.

The Talmud Shabbat 88B teaches that on the day of the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Torah was proclaimed to the world in seventy different languages so that all of humanity could hear and understand its teaching. Traditionally, this passage is understood as a declaration of the truth of the Torah for all of humanity, but there is an alternative way that it can be interpreted:

We can understand this Talmudic passage as coming to tell us that we should not think that God speaks to the Jewish people alone, He speaks to all of the nations of the world – each in their own language, and each according to their own character and circumstances. Yet the source of inspiration is One and the essential teaching is One.

Accepting this more expansive and all-inclusive vision of God’s revelation is the challenge that faces us as Jews today. The growth in our consciousness that this new vision and understanding will bring is the “spiritual fruit” that God is offering to us – a harvest of inner freedom to culminate the process of our liberation that began with the exodus from the galut (exile) and our return to the land of Israel.

Copyright © 2014, by Yoel Glick



Acknowledgements    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Translation from Eliayhu Kitov, The Book of Our Heritage, Shavuot
  2. Shub, Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Torah portion Shemot # 16-20
  3. Rebbe Nachman, Likutei Maharan, end of Torah 21
  4. Toldot Yaacov Yosef, Yaacov Yosef of Polonya, Torah portion Chayei Sarah