Why Was Six Scared of Seven?
In the Land of Israel the Festival of Succot lasts for a majestic eight days. The Festival of Pesach lasts for an almost-majestic seven days. And the Festival of Shavuot lasts for just one day. It seems a little paltry compared to the other two and yet the Festival of Shavuot represents the absolute foundation of Judaism – the day that the Holy Torah was given to the Jewish Nation.
Why would it be that this day which exemplifies everything that Judaism stands for be encapsulated in just one day? And why is it that Shavuot is a Festival that seems to be devoid of any real trappings? It’s true that cheese-cake appears extensively on the Shavuot menu, but there is no obligation to eat it (what a relief for the lactose-intolerant and the cheese-cake intolerant!). Pesach and Succot, on the other hand, are chock-a-block full of symbolism with special activities and special foods.
In Jewish philosophy numbers are very significant. The Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Yehudah Loew, explains that the number seven represents the natural world. The number seven stems from the seven days of the creation and the seven days of the week. A number seven will always be connected to nature. The number eight, on the other hand, represents something that is beyond the natural world, something that belongs to the spiritual realms. With this in mind we can understand why Succot lasts eight days, since it’s a time of intense spirituality culminating in Simchat Torah and our expression of love for G-d. But why would Pesach last for for only seven days? Why is Pesach, the Festival of Freedom – the time that we commemorate all of the super-natural miracles that God wrought for His Chosen Nation – represented by the number seven? And, last of all, Shavuot, one of the holiest and spiritually transcendent days of the year, is just one day. Why?
Because Pesach does not finish when Pesach ends! The Festivals are given to us to draw closer to G-d and to join together with Him in such a way that we feel their influence throughout the entire year. Pesach is the Festival of Freedom, but Pesach does not define for us what freedom means. Freedom from what? Freedom for what? Pesach is the beginning of a process that ends with Shavuot. Shavuot, the Giving of the Torah – the defining moment in Jewish history and theology. Of what use is freedom from slavery and subjugation if that freedom is not harnessed to aspirations and goals that will transform us into something better than we were? It transpires that Pesach really does have eight days in a sense. However, the eighth day — the culmination of everything that Pesach truly represents — is seven weeks later on Shavuot. Shavuot is the moment that we, the Jewish Nation, moved out of the physical realms and into the spiritual ones instead. By accepting the Torah on Sinai we declared our absolute allegiance to G-d. We took our oh-so-precious, new-found freedom from Egyptand slavery and we dedicated it to G-d. That is why there are no unique activities on Shavuot that set it apart from the other Festvals. On Shavuot we celebrate by learning G-d’s Torah. What could be more Heavenly than that? We do not base the Festival around physical signs because to do so would be too “seven-like” and would detract us from the very essence of the day.
There is a famous children’s joke, “Why was six scared of seven? Because seven eight (ate) nine”. The children think it’s hilarious and the adults think that it’s ridiculous.
And I think that without Shavuot we would really have to be scared of the number seven, scared of the tremendous power that physicality has in the world and how it overwhelms and consumes us so easily. But we don’t remain in the realm of seven. From Pesach through Shavuot we push forward and metamorphose into the number eight, leaving the physicality behind as we soar into the spiritual spheres that contain nothing but ourselves and Our Father in Heaven.
Bliss. Pure bliss. Far, far more sublime than even the tastiest cheese-cake in the world.