Shabuot and the Exodus From Egypt
The Ramban (Rav Moshe Nahmanides, Spain, 1194-1270), in an important passage in his Torah commentary, discusses the surprising name given by the Sages of the Talmud to the holiday of Shabuot. While we customarily use the name "Shabuot," which means "weeks," referring to the culmination of the seven weeks of counting leading up to Shabuot, the Rabbis of the Talmud call this holiday "Aseret." This name is familiar to us from Shemini Aseret, the holiday celebrated immediately following the seven days of Sukkot. The Ramban explains that just as Shemini Aseret forms the conclusion of the celebration of Sukkot, similarly, Shabuot marks the conclusion of an extended holiday period which begins with Pesach. The seven-week Omer period, the Ramban writes, parallels the days of Hol Ha’moed, the intermediary days between the first day of Sukkot and Shemini Aseret.
The Ramban here establishes for us a vitally important perspective on the celebration of Shabuot. It is not a separate holiday that is celebrated seven weeks after Pesach. Rather, it marks the culmination of the celebration that began on Pesach. These two festivals are integrally connected, and are, in fact, two stages of a single process.
What exactly is the connection between these two holidays? Pesach celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, and Shabuot celebrates our receiving the Torah. How are they to be seen as two stages of a process?
Pesach celebrates our nation’s freedom from Egyptian bondage, but freedom from bondage is not something to celebrate unless it leads to a positive goal. Freedom in and of itself has no value. The great value and blessing of freedom lies in its enabling us to achieve our ultimate goal and purpose – which is to serve G-d. Therefore, Pesach must be inherently linked to Shabuot. The freedom we received on Pesach is to be celebrated only because it led to Shabuot, to our standing at Mount Sinai and accepting upon ourself the Torah, committing to live our lives as loyal servants of G-d.
As we know, there is a Misva to drink four cups of wine at the Seder on Pesach, and these four cups are commonly understood as commemorating the four promises G-d made to Beneh Yisrael in Egypt: 1) "Ve’hoseti" – "I will take you out" from Egypt; 2) "Ve’hisalti" – "I will save you" from Egyptian bondage; 3) "Ve’ga’alti" – "I will redeem you"; 4) "Ve’lakahti" – "I will take you" as G-d’s special nation. The fourth promise – "Ve’lakahti" – refers to Matan Torah, when we formally entered into a special covenant with G-d. Significantly, this promise is commemorated on Pesach along with the first three, the promises of freedom from slavery. Already on Pesach, we celebrate not only our release from Egyptian bondage, but that we were released from Egyptian bondage for the purpose of standing at Sinai and committing ourselves to the Torah. This goal is part and parcel of the Pesach celebration, because without it, our freedom is meaningless.
In fact, although Halacha allows drinking more than four cups at the Seder, it forbids drinking additional cups in between the third cup, after Birkat Ha’mazon, and the fourth cup, after Hallel. Symbolically, this alludes to the link that must be maintained between the first three promises and the fourth promise. We must not make any interruption in between the promises of freedom and the promise of being taken as G-d’s special nation – because we must make it perfectly clear that the purpose of attaining our freedom was to accept the Torah and commit ourselves to G-d’s service.
On the night of Shabuot, we recite Kiddush and proclaim that G-d gave us the holiday of Shabuot "Zecher Li’ysiat Misrayim" – "in commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt." At first glance, it seems difficult to understand how Shabuot commemorates the Exodus. In light of what we have seen, however, the answer is clear. Shabuot celebrates the objective of the Exodus, which is what lends the Exodus its value and significance. It was on Shabuot that the miracles of Yesiat Mizrayim realized their ultimate purpose.
Living a life of "freedom" without any higher purpose is not true freedom. We are truly "free" when we enjoy the freedom to live fulfilling and meaningful lives, working each day to realize the purpose for which G-d has placed us in His world.