Why Pesach and Shavuot Are Both Necessary
It is an axiom of the American national narrative that in 1776, citizens of the 13 colonies declared themselves independent of Great Britain, King George III and his government of pompous autocrats. The Revolutionary War that followed resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, and both sides in the conflict spent huge sums of money to secure victory.
Ultimately, the American patriots won the day (partly due to French military help), with broad support from the colonial population.
But this narrative fails to acknowledge a powerful truth that undercuts it completely — namely, the emergence during the 1780s of a powerful group of legislators, known as the Federalists, who sought to reunite the United States with Great Britain, and to return to a monarchical-style government.
One of the heads of the Federalist movement was Alexander Hamilton, who would later become the first Secretary of the Treasury, and was a close aide to George Washington.
Hamilton’s faction was opposed by a group led by Thomas Jefferson, who refused to bow to Federalist pressure, even after the republican-inspired French revolution turned sour and produced the infamous Reign of Terror.
Ultimately, the United States passed its Constitution, which seemed to guarantee a democratic form of government. But the pivotal moment for America came after the presidential election of 1800, when Jefferson beat John Adams, but tied with Aaron Burr, his choice for vice president. Jefferson would ultimately become president, after some Federalists — Alexander Hamilton among them — chose to support his candidacy.
Yet what makes this moment so revolutionary is that it was the first time in recorded history that power passed from one group to another without anyone being killed or imprisoned, despite the great mutual enmity between the parties involved.
This second American Revolution strikes me as an extremely important, if overlooked, historical example of the phenomenon of one momentous transformative event needing to be followed by another event in order for the first to be truly consequential.
Our own history as Jews began with exactly this sequence — the Exodus from Egypt was followed seven weeks later by the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the gift of God’s Torah. The first ‘revolution’ only became meaningful once the ex-slaves had internalized their freedom from human oppression and their direct involvement with God, both individually and collectively.
Nevertheless, this one-two phenomenon seems curious, to say the least. Why are first revolutions never enough to effect a permanent break with the past? Why would some American colonists who had suffered under the yoke of British tyranny and misrule ever have contemplated a return to anything connected to British governance? Why would Jews emerging out of a Red Sea that had miraculously split to save their lives, not immediately be ready to receive the Torah? Why does one need a second epiphany to perpetuate the first?
It is often the case that the ecstatic emotions that accompany a transformation from one reality to another are dampened and overshadowed by the challenges emanating from the overwhelming success of that transformation. The elusive pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not actually as glittering when encountered close-up. All of a sudden, the fleshpots of Egypt (or of Great Britain) seem rather more attractive than they did before the celebrated moment of redemption. It is only once this anticlimax has been experienced, and then overcome, that the true revolution can take place.
The second revolution is actually the final act of the first. That is why we count the days between the first day of Passover and Shavuot, the festival that commemorates receiving the Torah. And that is why this period of “sefirat ha’omer” is considered similar to the intermediate days of the Passover and Sukkot festivals.
Yet as long as we stay focused on the consummation of the initial redemption through the Mount Sinai revelation, we can be sure to shake off the shackles of Egyptian slavery, so that our Pesach freedom brings us into God’s Shavuot embrace.