Shavuot is when the Jewish people celebrate the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai, Matan Torah. Yet upon closer inspection, this chag is full of contradictions.
First off, in the five times the Torah mentions Shavuot it just refers to the holiday as an agricultural commemoration, of the harvest and of the new fruits that the people brought to the Beit HaMikdash as offerings. It never explicitly refers to Shavuot as a celebration of Matan Torah. This came from the rabbis reading the verses closely to link the timing of Shavuot given in the Torah to the actual event of Matan Torah. But then why wouldn’t the Torah just explicitly tell us the date of Shavuot?
Second, think about Jewish holidays and observances. What do nearly all of them have in common? Rituals and laws, very specific things we’re supposed to do. Just think about Pesach, which even comes with its own script in the form of the Haggadah. For a holiday celebrating freedom, it’s very structured, whereas Shavuot, a holiday celebrating the Jewish people receiving the Law and Word of God, is almost without structure other than bringing the first fruit offerings. The tradition of staying up all night to study Torah developed later (as did those of eating dairy and reading Megillat Ruth).
Third, why is the actual giving of the Torah given such short shrift, seemingly, in the Torah itself? We’re commanded constantly to remember God taking us out of Egypt, but not to remember God giving us the Torah.
And one last question pertinent to our current circumstances: Jewish tradition teaches that Matan Torah included not only the people who were recently taken out of Egypt, but the souls of every single Jewish person for generations to come. We were “all standing together at Sinai” for this mass, shared revelation. How can we commemorate Shavuot while isolated in our own homes?
The answer to all of these is found in the essential nature of Shavuot itself, which has deep teachings for us regarding what it means to be Jewish and connect with the Torah.
According to Rashi, the Torah, usually very specific about the dates and timing of chagim, deliberately obscures the date of Shavuot so that we don’t link receiving the Torah to any one day. Whereas we’re meant to constantly remember being taken out of Egypt, we are meant to relive the receiving the Torah on a constant basis, not just on a specific day or through a set of specific rituals, but every single day and in everything we do.
On Pesach, we are commemorating just being taken out of hundreds of years of slavery. We need God-given structure to help us experience freedom. We need a script. By Shavuot, God is teaching us that to truly be a free Jewish people, collectively and as individuals, we need to establish our own connections to the Torah within this structure. And indeed, we developed the tradition of reliving receiving the Torah by staying up all night to learn it.
This year, we’ll be doing that in our own individual homes, not in person as a community. But just as our souls were all together at Sinai, they’ll be together this year, even while we’re apart. This year provides an enormous opportunity for each of us to go back to the roots of the chag and work to find our own letter in the Torah, so to speak, connecting with it as we relive it, and taking that work forward into the rest of the year.