The Day that Changed the World

 
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Shavuot 5781

Jared Eaton, Simchat Yisrael, West Haven, CT

The Festival of Shavuot has the unique distinction of being the only holiday celebrated in both Jewish and Christian traditions. The church may call it “Pentecost” and their celebration may have a different focus, but Shavuot commemorates the birth of these two religions; at Sinai for the Jews and in Jerusalem for the church.

But despite its importance, compared to other Jewish holidays there aren’t many customs connected with Shavuot. Aside from a few traditions like eating dairy and studying Torah all night, the main mitzvot connected to Shavuot are reading the book of Ruth and hearing the Ten Commandments.

Looking for ideas on how to celebrate Shavuot, I asked some of my pastor friends what they were planning for Pentecost. They all shrugged their shoulders and didn’t have anything special going on.

Shavuot/Pentecost should be one of the biggest holidays in the world, but it seems to me that it’s not given the prominence that it deserves. And I believe this is a result of both Judaism and Christianity missing big pieces of what Shavuot is all about.

In early Judaism, Shavuot was primarily a harvest festival and pilgrimage. The Feast of Weeks marks the time when the wheat fields in Israel were harvested and brought to the temple in Jerusalem. But if you’re not an ancient Judean farmer these ideas aren’t very concrete, and this abstraction coupled with the lack of observances has led to Shavuot being the least known holiday amongst secular Jews, many not even knowing that it exists.

But there is a greater significance to Shavuot. Shavuot takes place fifty days after Passover, and in those fifty days the Israelites who had been freed from slavery in Egypt made their way through the wilderness and traveled to Mt Sinai.

One of the great themes of Passover is freedom, but our tradition teaches us the Jews were not really free when Pharaoh let them leave. They may have been physically free, but in their hearts they were still slaves, unable to come to grips with their newfound freedom.

The Jewish people did not experience true liberation of mind, body, and soul until they came to Mt Sinai, heard the voice of God, and received the Torah. On Shavuot we celebrate not just being given some laws; we celebrate being given our freedom, our identity, and our soul.

As for Christianity, Shavuot, or Pentecost as they call it, commemorates the events described in the second chapter of Acts. During the festival of Shavuot, when thousands of Jews were gathered in Jerusalem to bring their wheat harvest offerings to the temple, a mighty wind from Heaven rushed down and tongues of fire rested on the assembled followers of Yeshua. They began to speak in all the languages of the world, each one of them proclaiming the gospel and the mighty acts of God.

The crowds were amazed, and when Peter stood up to tell the people about the death and resurrection of Messiah Yeshua, it’s said that over 3,000 Jews came to faith that day.

From that time on everything was different, and still is to this day. No longer confined to Jerusalem, the gospel spread throughout Israel and into the nations. Empowered by the Ruach HaKodesh, the followers of Yeshua were able to perform miracles, heal the sick, raise the dead. Thousands and thousands of people came to faith, Jew and gentile, and the gospel was preached in every nation and tongue.

The giving of the Ruach was an occasion as momentous as the giving of the Torah. If the first Shavuot was the birth of the Jewish people, this Shavuot marked the birth of the Yeshua movement. What had once been a small, insular group spread and became a worldwide phenomenon that continues to grow to this day and beyond.

On the first Shavuot, God gave us the gift of his Word. On the second great Shavuot, God gave the gift of his Spirit. We have much to celebrate, yet the world doesn’t seem to pay all that much attention to Shavuot. For both Jews and Christians, Shavuot is at best often treated like a minor holiday, at worst like something that we forget about altogether. Why is that?

The problem is that both sides are only getting half the story. For Jews, we celebrate the giving of the Torah, but the story ends there. This was a one-time gift, never to be repeated. And the church celebrates the giving of the Spirit, but there’s no context involved. For the average Christian, the Spirit was given on just some random day in history.

It’s only when you put the two stories together that you see something greater emerge. Both stories, Sinai and Jerusalem, are amazing on their own and each day changed the world forever. However, when we read these stories together, we see not just some one-off miracles but a story of progressive revelation and a God who gives and continues to give more and greater gifts to the world.

Yes, we celebrate the giving of the Torah for itself. But we also understand that there is even more cause for celebration because God has sent Messiah Yeshua, the Word made flesh, to fulfill the Torah.

And we can celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit in the full context of God’s revelation to us. First, God sends his Word so that we know his will for us. Then he sends his Son, so that he can dwell with us and love us face to face, and finally he sends his Spirit so that nothing can separate us from his love ever again.

On the first great Shavuot God gave us the gift of the Torah. On the second great Shavuot he gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit. No one can know the hour or the day of Messiah’s return, but perhaps Yeshua will come on a third great Shavuot. How fitting would it be for God to give us the greatest gift of all on a day such as this?

Chag Shavuot Sameach!

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