The Shavuot holiday has three basic themes:
(a) The first is the reaffirmation of the Almighty as “The G-d of Creation” who fashioned and continues to control the forces and laws of nature This motif is reflected in two of the additional names of Shavuot, namely Hag haKatsir (The Festival of the Harvest) and Hag haBikurim (The Festival of the First Fruits), and in the Mishna’s (Rosh haShana I:2) declaration that on Shavuot “the world is judged regarding the fruit of the tree.” Clearly, the bringing of the first fruits to Jerusalem and the sacrifice of the Omer offering from the new wheat, publicly acknowledge our debt of gratitude to the ultimate source of our bounty.
(b) The second theme of Shavuot is the reaffirmation of the Almighty as “The G-d of Revelation” and is the reason we refer to this holiday in both prayer and ritual as “zman matan Torateinu” (The Time of the Giving of the Torah). On Pesach, G-d took the Jews out of Egypt; on Shavuot, G-d took Egypt out of the Jews. On Pesach, the Almighty gave us “freedom from…”, on Shavuot, we received “freedom for…” It was at Sinai that the Creator made it eminently clear to us why He freed us and what He expected us to do with our physical freedom. Specifically, we are to sanctify and be sanctified through the mitzvah of fulfilling His commandments. The reason we are obligated to celebrate Shavuot yearly is because Sinai is not merely a historical event that was, but an on-going covenant that is. It celebrates a dynamic relationship between G-d and the Nation of Israel that describes and prescribes our role as individuals and as a nation on the stage of history.
(c) The third motif is the centrality of Gemilut Hassadim (acts of loving-kindness). It is emphasized by the fact that the Torah (Leviticus XXIII:22) describes the agricultural gifts to the poor – leket, shikkha and peah – specifically in connection to Shavuot. And again, in connection with Shavuot, we are commanded to rejoice with “the convert, the orphan and the widow in your midst” (Deuteronomy XVI:11). The centrality of acts of kindness is indeed one of the reasons that Megillat Ruth is read on this holiday, for this book describes the many acts of hessed that Ruth did for Naomi, and those of Boaz on behalf of Ruth and Naomi.
In contradistinction to the other regalim, Shavuot has no specific holiday-related commandments or rituals for the individual – certainly nothing like the Seder of Pesah, or the Lulav and Sukka of Sukkot. On the contrary, its content is perhaps more intellectual - an attempt to create a Jewish weltanschauung (world view). As outlined above, the message of Shavuot is comprised of three parts: the need to recognize and acknowledge our ongoing dependence on the G-d of Creation, the centrality of Sinaitic revelation and Torah as a dynamic experience and the pivotal importance of gemillut hassadim. May we succeed in applying these divine ideas in our mundane world.
*Rabbi Dr. Aryeh A. Frimer is the Ethel and David Resnick Professor of Active Oxygen Chemistry at Bar Ilan University; FrimeA@mail.biu.ac.il.