Subscribe to our Newsletter

click to dowload our latest edition



ParshatBehar: Freedom versus responsibility




By: Rabbi Matthew Liebenberg
Claremont Wynberg Shul

The Jewish world has just celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut and in a few weeks’ time will celebrate Yom Yerushalayim, the 47th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem. 

Celebrations for Yom Ha’atzmaut are held with great fanfare, usually at large venues and are attended by masses of people, whereas Yom Yerushalayim is commemorated in a more subdued manner and attracts fewer people. Why is it that Jewry seems to attach less importance to this day?

The same might be said of two Biblical festivals, Pesach and Shavuot. Pesach is arguably the most widely observed festival in Judaism. A recent study showed that 98 per cent of Israelis have some form of Pesach seder. Jews across the spectrum of observance strongly identify with the themes, foods and significance of Pesach.

Shavuot, on the other hand, is the least observed festival. Shuls are almost empty and many Jews don’t even know that the festival exists. 

And yet Shavuot is just as important as Pesach and, in the times of the Temple, was one of the three pilgrimage festivals. Why has this chag been relegated to the position of the “poorer sister”?

Some suggest that its lack of popularity is related to the fact it has no unique “symbols”. Pesach has the seder, the eating of matzah and the prohibition against consuming leaven; Succoth, the succah and the four species; Rosh Hashanah, the shofar and Yom Kippur, the solemn aura of the fast. 

Shavuot has no such symbolism. The Torah does not require the consumption of a specific food or the performance of any ritual outside the Temple. The customs of the festival, such as the eating of dairy and the all-night study session are of more recent origin. With nothing special to offer, Shavuot has been ignored by unaffiliated Jews.

But there is a deeper reason for these differences. Pesach is a festival of freedom. The Children of Israel were redeemed from oppression and were given the gift of self-determination. But this was only the first part of G-d’s plan. 

Freedom was not an end but a means to a greater goal, namely receiving the Torah and living according to its dictates, morals and standards. 

Pesach represents privilege – the right to be free men, an idea we express at the seder by reclining and enjoying the finest foods. Shavuot, however, is about responsibility. Our freedom was granted so that we would be an example of morality by observing the Torah.

It is human nature to embrace freedom and to reject responsibility. Even the generation who received the Torah were criticised by Moses for leaving Mount Sinai at the soonest opportunity like “a child who flees from school”. 

Having learned hundreds of mitzvoth during their sojourn, the nation was keen to leave before G-d heaped more duties upon them. Their behaviour set the tone for future generations.

In modern times Jews rejoiced the establishment of the State in 1948 and revelled in their newfound freedom. But the purpose of that day (very soon after Pesach) was to create a country founded on the principles of the Torah and to ultimately reclaim Jerusalem, the ancient seat of the monarchy, the Sanhedrin and the Temple. 

That goal was achieved 19 years later (just seven days before Shavuot) when Jerusalem was once again in Jewish hands. 

The nation celebrated this great victory but with less enthusiasm than they did their independence. Now that the Holy City was in their hands, would they once again have to live lives dedicated to Torah and mitzvoth? For many this was a difficult question.

Yom Ha’atzmaut, like Pesach, is the beginning of freedom but Yom Yerushalayim, like Shavuot, is its climax, the true purpose of our redemption, to live a holy life in a holy land!

Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *