Shavuot is the most important holiday of the year if you really want to understand Jewish philosophy. It celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. I want to focus today more on how the Torah was given, than on the content itself, as well as how we observe the holiday ourselves. It is the easiest of the major holidays to observe, requiring Torah study and cheesecake. More on that in a moment.
God does not bring the people, or even just Moses up to heaven to give the Torah. Rather, God comes down to Earth, speaking from a lowly mountain in a desolate part of the world. There is a powerful message that God reached down to us, without first requiring that we elevate ourselves. God gave the Torah in language we understood. It is a reminder to us that we have to meet people, especially our loved ones, at their own level if we truly want to communicate with them. We should never feel that we are above them.
If you noticed, I have been talking about how God gave the Torah to us, not just those in the wilderness. There is a tradition that every person who would ever be Jewish, whether by birth or choice, was present at the giving of the Torah. It means that even if we have not yet studied Torah, or if we do not read a word of Hebrew, the Torah is already in our hearts, ready to be accessed and nurtured. Each of us has within us the potential for spiritual greatness.
In terms of observance of Shavuot, there are really just two requirements. As I mentioned above, it is Torah study and cheesecake. Cheesecake is not a strict requirement. You may substitute blinztes or any other delicious foods. Dairy is the ideal because of a tradition that the Israelites in the wilderness refrained from eating meat until they got the laws of the Torah, but the important thing is to have wonderful meals together.
According to the Sfas Emes, the second Gerrer rebbe, Shavuot is the only holiday on which it is a commandment to study Torah and have beautiful meals. He said that it symbolizes the unification of Heaven and Earth, of the spiritual and material worlds.
This is a powerful idea because so many people who think of themselves as religious reject the joys of the material world, a world that God created. So many secularly oriented people reject the spiritual aspects of the world. Judaism says the ideal is a balance, a middle way between the two. The material world gives us the strength to maintain our spirituality. Our spiritual practice elevates the material and keeps things in perspective.
This Shavuot, if you come to services, or just study on your own, and have a nice nosh after, you will beuniting the upper and lower worlds, and bringing God down to Earth again, just like at Mount Sinai.