The festival of Shavuot is unique among Torah celebrations in modern Israel.
It is the point of connection that the secular kibbutznik can most completely identify with, in the Law of Moses.
Especially for Israel’s agricultural villages (265 kibbutzim + 450 moshavim) it is the “chag hachagim” – the festival of festivals.
Shavuot comes in the late Spring when the fertile, rainy season has passed (Song of Songs 2:11), just before the dry summer begins. It comes 7 weeks (~50 days) after Passover. It comes among golden fields whose wheat has become fully ripened (Acts 2:1).
Israel celebrates its firstfruits (“bikurim”) at Shavuot, and that is why the Shavuot experience is so dearly felt in the agricultural villages. It is the celebration of a people who forgot how to farm — suddenly able to feed itself again, on God’s green earth. It is the celebration of being restored back to our land after two millennia in the Diaspora as a persecuted minority of “foreigners” often forbidden from owning land.
We celebrate the land yielding its fruit. We celebrate the God-given miracle whereby a single grain of wheat multiplies in hundred-fold increase. We rejoice — after being in the long, dark, cold night of exile; to wake up one fine spring morning and find ourselves alive and sovereign in the land of our fathers. It is a day of “For his mercy overwhelms us.” (Psalm 117:2).
On the moshav where I live in the Galilee, Shavuot is the time of the year when we most feel a collective community connection. Every family prepares food or drink for a “pot-luck” brunch. Everyone is dressed in festive white. Bails of freshly cut hay are decorated with pink bougainvillea flowers and milk-pails, symbolizing Zionist pioneering. One moshavnik shares bottles of red wine he has made. Another brings her own homemade fresh cheese. Dairy dishes are traditionally eaten on this day.
In a ceremony replete with Biblical harvest songs and folk dancing, mothers show off their babies born over the past year. In Hebrew, firstborn (b’chor) and firstfruits (bikurim) is virtually the same word.
In a collective kibbutz, Shavuot is celebrated by multiple branches of productivity presenting their firstfruits. My friend Tal told me about celebrating Shavuot on his kibbutz in the Jordan Valley just south of the Sea of Galilee. The dairy branch parade their best calves and dairy products. The field and orchard workers bring their best wheat and dates, their brightest Jaffa oranges, and their shiniest red tractors. Boys and girls bring little sheaves of wheat and fruit-baskets full of every fruit and vegetable just harvested.
His kibbutz, though secular on the surface, was one of those founded by pioneers who had been highly observant Orthodox Jews in Europe. They had felt a strong prompting to come to the land of Palestine just after World War I. For those old-timers, Shavuot was indeed about joyous thanksgiving to the God of Israel. But even atheist Israelis are willingly swept up into celebrating the bounty in the Land of Milk and Honey.
When you enter the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, and you take possession of it and settle in it, take some of the first ripe produce that you harvest from the soil of the land that the Lord your God is giving you. Put it in a basket, and go to the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish his name. Go to the priest who is presiding at that time and say to him, “Today I declare before the Lord your God that I have come to the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give to us.”
The priest will take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the Lord your God…
Then set the basket down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, as well as the Levite and the alien who resides among you, will rejoice in all the good things that the Lord your God has given to you and your household. (Deuteronomy 26 – NIV)
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