Shavuot: An Oasis in the Desert

Torah at SinaiOur retelling of the Exodus on Passover ends when we close the Haggadah text. But when did the story really end?

You might think that the story ended when the Jewish people left Egypt on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan, 1313 BCE. On that day the Jews were freed from the land where they had been enslaved. But it was not so easy to leave slavery behind…

-Rochel Chein
“When Does the Passover Story End?”

It may seem strange to talk about Passover in a blog post about Shavuot, but there’s a connection. The most obvious link between Passover and Shavuot is the Counting of the Omer which begins after the first full day of Passover and ends, 49 days later, on Shavuot. While this may not seem to mean a lot to most Christians, I’ve previously lamented about why Christians don’t count the Omer. It seems like the giving of the Torah at Sinai and the giving of the Spirit in Jerusalem are parallel events or on some mystical and cosmic level, even the same event. It seems it would make good sense for both Jews and Christians to be doing a countdown and for very similar reasons.

But is arriving at Shavuot and receiving the Torah the final end of Passover for the Jews? Rochel Chein’s commentary continues.

Now the Jews had the Torah, but they were still homeless and unable to fulfill many of its laws. G‑d used four expressions of redemption to promise Moses that He would redeem the Jews from Egypt. (We commemorate them by drinking four cups of wine at the Passover Seder.) But the four expressions were followed by a fifth promise (Exodus 6:8), “And I will bring you to the land…”

Similarly, G-d told Moses that, “I have descended to rescue them from the hand[s] of the Egyptians and to bring them up from that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8).

Surely it’s safe to say that the Exodus narrative ends when the Jews enter the Promised Land after 40 years in the desert?

I’ve previously written how each year we have numerous times of renewal if we observe the festivals on the Jewish calendar, when we can not only remember the great acts of God for the sake of Israel, but live them as if they were happening for the first time, becoming new souls again as the Torah and the Spirit fill our emptiness. But here we see that this never ending cycle is not just a series of annual events. Perhaps what we are experiencing is eternal.

But the first few centuries after the Jewish people entered Israel were tumultuous, and it was only when King Solomon ruled that there was true peace, and “Each man sat under his vine and his fig tree.”

Support for the idea that the Exodus concluded with the building of Solomon’s Temple can be found in the famous “Dayeinu” song in the Passover Hagaddah reader. The song reviews all the miracles that G‑d did for the Jews after they were saved from Egypt, concluding with the building of the Holy Temple.

But Solomon’s reign ended, and it was followed by eras of civil strife, the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples, and the dispersal of the Jewish nation in exile. We end the Seder with the prayer, “Next year in Jerusalem,” that we may speedily merit the final redemption and the building of the third Temple.

In a sense, saying “next year in Jerusalem” is a cry to God to send the Messiah. In a sense, each year we live on earth, even with the Torah and the Spirit to comfort and guide us, we are still wandering in the desert. Passover has never really ended. We are all still walking away from Egypt and toward the final redemption of the world one step at a time, one day at a time, one year at a time.

Shavuot is one of those steps that we take each year but as we see, it’s not the final step, nor is it the “end of Passover.” We have the Torah and we have the Spirit, but we are still here and it is still now and the Messiah has not yet returned. The world is unredeemed and there is a longing for God to restore the garden that was lost. When will God return the Messiah to us?

According to Mrs. Chein, Mitzrayim, the Hebrew name for Egypt, is similar to the word meitzarim, which means “boundaries” or “limitations.” We exist in a limited world and we are bound by a broken Creation and our flesh and blood frailty. Shavuot isn’t the end of the Passover or the Exodus wanderings, it’s just a milestone along the way. Yet it is a precious and wonderful milestone because it, and the Shabbat, are foretastes of the final Shabbat, the full redemption, the world to come.

It’s an oasis in the desert where we may rest for a time. At the conclusion of the festival, we rise up, and move on, following our pillar of fire by night and the cloud by day.

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