“You shall count seven weeks from the beginning of the reaping and then you shall observe the Festival of Shevuos for Hashem your G-d….and you shall rejoice before Hashem your G-d, you, your son, your daughter, your slave, your maidservant, the Levite, stranger, orphan and widow who are among you.” (Devarim 16:9-12). But why should we rejoice on Shevuos? The Torah doesn’t say. The next pasuk says, “Remember that you were slaves in Mitzrayim,” but this surely is connected to Pesach and not Shevuos. Even stranger, is that the previous pasukim mention the festival of Pesach but don’t mention an obligation to rejoice.
We could also ask why the Torah mentions precisely here a long list of people we must bring simcha to. We know that we have to be hospitable and kind to others. What is the connection between hospitality and Shevuos? The same question arises in Parshas Emor. In the middle of all the technical details of the Yomim Tovim the Torah tells us to give the corner of our fields to the poor. (Vayikra 23:22) All the meforshim ask why the Torah inserts this obligation to give to the poor in the middle of Hilchos Yom Tov. Rashi explains that “it teaches that anyone who gives to the poor is as if he built the Beis Hamikdash and brought korbonos in it.” We know that we have to remember the poor particularly on Yom Tov but why does the Torah emphasize it so many times? And why it is comparable to building the Beis Hamikdash and bringing korbonos?
We all know that there are leniencies on Yom Tov which don’t apply to Shabbos. “Whatever is necessary for eating may be done for you.” (Shemos 12:16). We are allowed to cook food on Yom Tov if it will taste better than the same food cooked on Erev Yom Tov. There are certain other melachos we may also do, subject to numerous conditions which are not the subject of this essay. But nowhere is there a reason given for this leniency. We manage to avoid all 39 melachos on Shabbos. So what is different about Yom Tov? (The sefer Derech Hashem gives an explanation al pi kabala).
Pesachim 68b tells us that on most Yomim Tovim there is a dispute whether we have to rejoice through eating and drinking but on Shevuos everybody agrees that it is required. Why? “Because it is the day the Torah was given.” Rav Yosef said he ate meat of the highest quality on Shevuos because “If not for that day, I would be like all the other Yosefs in the street.”
The Rambam (Hilchos Yom Tov 6:17) writes that we have an obligation throughout Yom Tov to be “Same’ach v’tov lev – to rejoice and feel good in our heart.” Rav Nissim Karelitz understands this to be a separate and more encompassing obligation that eating meat and drinking wine. Why should we be more b’simcha on Yom Tov than on Shabbos? Shabbos is essentially an expression of our emuna that Hashem created the world. It is appropriate to be b’simcha but it is not an obligation. On Yom Tov we remember specific miracles which Hashem has done for us, like taking us out of slavery in Mitzrayim and looking after us in the wilderness. We are naturally very grateful to Him for these tremendous miracles. The Torah gives us a mitzva to be b’simcha because that is the appropriate behaviour for a recipient of wonderful kindnesses. And it could be that to enable us to rejoice fully, Hashem allowed us to enjoy the best, freshly cooked foods.
The giving of the Torah to the Jewish People, however, was and is the greatest kindness that has ever been. As we say every morning, “Ashreinu, ma tov chelkeinu, uma no’im goraleinu, uma yofo yerushoseinu. “Our yerusha – our inheritance – is the Torah. As the posuk says, “Torah tziva lonu Moshe morasha kehilas Yaakov. The Torah is, among many other things, our blueprint for life, our source of happiness and the antidote to our yetzer hora. Eating the best quality meat shows how happy we are to have the Torah. We recognize that without the Torah, we would be just like all the lost souls who roam the secular world until they die, physical and spiritual wrecks, unfulfilled and depressed. Without the Torah, Yetzias Mitzrayim would have been an exercise in futility. Yes, Hashem has redeemed us from slavery in Mitzrayim and brought us out into the wilderness. Now what? The raison d’être of yetzias Mitzrayim was the giving of the Torah. That is why the Torah does not tell us to be b’simcha in the section about Pesach – merely leaving Mitzrayim was no reason to be b’simcha. Only after we received the Torah, yetzias Mitzrayim retrospectively became a simcha because it was the first step in our receiving the Torah. That is why the mitzva of simcha on Pesach is only learned from a comparison from Shevuos to Pesach.(Tosfos, Chagiga 8a). Our simcha, therefore on Shevuos is actually a double simcha; one for Shevuos and one retrospectively for Pesach.
Our simcha on all Yomim Tovim but especially on Shevuos is encapsulated by the words of the machzor. “Atoh vechartonu mikol ho’amim – You chose us from all peoples, You loved us, desired us and elevated us from all nations. You sanctified us with Your mitzvos, You brought us close, our King, to Your service and You proclaimed Your holy and awesome Name over us.”
The interpolation of the words “our King” can help us answer our original question. Why is there such emphasis on Yom Tov on providing for the needy that it is compared with building the Beis Hamikdash? The answer is that we are not dealing with a mitzva of hospitality or charity, but much more. Our simcha on Yom Tov is not merely a personal feeling. It is the building block of a national kabolas ol Malchus Shomayim. With our simcha, we our voting in our hearts to accept Hashem as our King, to remain part of His Chosen People. But if it’s just us, there is a problem. Have you ever noticed that when dictators arrange elections, they always manage to win with 99.9% of the votes? Why do they insist on such near unamity? With 60% they could also claim victory. The explanation us is that a 60% vote may be a majority but it lacks the honour of a unanimous vote.
If even 90% of the Jewish People accept Malchus Shomayim but 10% are unhappy with Hashem’s rule, there is a lack in kovod Malchus. To complete Kovod Malchus, there needs to be a unanimous acceptance of Malchus Shomayim. There needs to be Ish echod b’leiv echod. We all need to say, “Na’aseh venishma.”
Some people will naturally tend to be lacking in simcha, all for different reasons. The orphan has no parents, the widow misses her late husband, the stranger has no social structure, the Levite has no fields, the poor have no money. If they will not join with the rest of the Jewish People in accepting b’simcha Hashem’s Torah and His Kingdom, there will be a lack in kovod malchus. Therefore we have a special obligation to show kindness to them, each one in the appropriate way, to bring them simcha so that they too will join in accepting the Torah b’simcha with everybody else. Our efforts to give simcha to those in need, thus promoting Kovod Shomayim, is equivalent to rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash, the absence of which also causes a diminution of Kovod Shomayim.
Shevuos, therefore, is not just ‘another’ Yom Tov but a day of cosmic implications. The Heavens and Earth waited for this day. It is the day we can rise from our mundane lives to connect with eternity; a day when, together with all other Jews and with double simcha we can accept the Torah and re-affirm our membership of Hashem’s eternal Kingdom.