Shavuos is the “forgotten” holiday, the Jewish festival that is not only uncelebrated by less observant Jews, but almost entirely forgotten by them!
There are several reasons why this is so – the most common explanation is that unlike Pesach, for example, there is very little ritual and work associated with Shavuos. Without strenuous ritual, customs fall by the wayside. So 97% of Israeli Jews have some kind of a seder, because even very unaffiliated Jews feel some connection to the hard work their ancestors put into cleaning for Pesach for thousands of years.
But there is an answer that speaks to the reason for the season itself. Pesach commemorates a national event, and a connection to the past – to the birth of the Jewish nation out of slavery. There is nothing denominational about it, nothing to feel insecure about one’s own relationship with G-d.
But Shavuos is different. Shavuos is given to us Hag ha-Katzir, “Feast of the Harvest”, and Hag ha-Bikkurim “Feast of the First-Fruits.” And our sages associate Shavuos with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
The connection between all of these is that in sum, it is a day of thanksgiving, a day of appreciation.
Herein lies the problem. To start with, saying “thank you” is difficult for most people. It is especially difficult for Jews, who have a hard time being happy with what we have. The harvest? It could have been better. The fruits? The ones we had when I was a child were much better! We even employ superstition, warding off the evil eye, to keep us from saying how good things are. So on Shavuos we are supposed to triumphantly thank Hashem for our blessings?
But the problem gets worse when we consider the Torah. After all, most Jews in the world have a deeply ambivalent approach to the Torah. Ask any non-orthodox Jew, and he or she will cheerfully tell you their issues with the Torah – all of the stringent commandments, the simplistic-sounding story of creation, the “dated” or “irrelevant” traetment of slavery, homosexuality, sacrifices. We are Jews – our love of disagreement runs roughshod over even the living document that records our earliest contrary thoughts and actions.
And to top it all off, there tends to be an underlying sense of guilt, of disconnection from thousands of years of observant Jewish ancestors, perhaps looking down at us from Heaven. It is awkward to consider one’s great-grandparents, and how they would see us today.
In other words, the Torah is, to many Jews, a source of embarrassment – at least when it is brought up at all.
So Shavuos is the first festival to go, when Jews wander from following the Torah. Most Jews are not interested in Shavuos, because they would rather that the Torah itself did not actually exist. What they fail to realize is that if Shavuos is cast aside, then the rest of our heritage, sooner or later, will follow after.