While the Torah reading for the first day of Shavuot chronicles the moments leading up to revelation at Sinai, the reading for the second day of Shavuot speaks about the holiday of Shavuot itself. In the context of explanations about all three pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot only gets a passing mention, and even that doesn’t seem to describe a Shavuot like the one we observe today:
שִׁבְעָה שָׁבֻעֹת תִּסְפָּר־לָךְ מֵהָחֵל חֶרְמֵשׁ בַּקָּמָה תָּחֵל לִסְפֹּר שִׁבְעָה שָׁבֻעוֹת׃ יוְעָשִׂיתָ חַג שָׁבֻעוֹת לַה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ מִסַּת נִדְבַת יָדְךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּתֵּן כַּאֲשֶׁר יְבָרֶכְךָ ה׳ אֱלֹהֶיךָ׃
You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for Adonai your God, offering your freewill contribution according as Adonai your God has blessed you.
Festival of First Fruits
Before acquiring its mystical framework, Shavuot was called Hag haBikkurim (Festival of First Fruits). The festival focused on the offering of first fruits in gratitude for the agricultural season’s abundance. While our celebration is now wrapped in the transformative power of all-night study, celebrating the moment of revelation and receiving Torah, this agricultural framework of the bikkurim continues to carry profound meaning.
The Fundamental Principles of Judaism
Rabbi Moshe Alshich explains that the bikkurim represent two fundamental principles of Judaism. He says that farming is one of the hardest professions because it involves difficult, backbreaking labor. Additionally, when a farmer plants in the spring, they do not know what will happen to their crop; anything from droughts to floods could ruin it. Conversely, when a farmer plants and enjoys a bountiful harvest, they might think, “my strength and the power of my hand made me this great wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:17). They might foolishly think that their industriousness and long hours of toiling in the fields were the sole reasons for the bountiful harvest. Bikkurim offer the antidote to such thinking.
Among so many other aspects of the season, the bikkurim offer a dimension of practicing humility, reminding us that it is God’s land and not ours. The ritual of counting the omer reminds us of the power of the steady, continuous journey, rather than simply emphasizing arrival at a moment of glory. Our seasonal study of Pirkei Avot during the weeks between Pesah and Shavuot gives us teaching after teaching of guidance to walk through life with humility and virtue. In many ways, this is the essential spiritual practice of the season. In fact, the modern Hassidic thinker Rabbi D. Shoham teaches that it is precisely for this reason that the Parashat Bemidbar is always read right before Shavuot. He offers that this juxtaposition reminds us that if we want to merit receiving Torah, we must make ourselves like the wilderness, bare and sparse, diminishing our ego and practicing humility. May this spiritual work enable us to receive Torah fully and completely on this Shavuot, giving us wisdom and blessing in the year to come.