I am from a somewhat traditional Jewish family, and yet the festival of Shavuos is completely unknown to us. We always had Seder on Pesach and fasted on Yom Kippur, but we never did anything to celebrate the giving of the Torah. All my friends did the same. I would have thought that this would be an important event to commemorate. So why is Shavuos the forgotten festival?
The reason why Shavuos is the least celebrated Jewish festival is a startling one. It is the least demanding. The easier the festival, the less it is observed.
The most difficult festival to observe is Yom Kippur, on which we abstain from food and drink altogether and pray all day. And yet, this rather grueling holyday is the most widely observed. The easiest festival to observe is Shavuos. All that is expected of us is to have a day of rest and eat lots of cheesecake. How hard can that be? And this pleasurable festival is the most neglected.
There's a surprising lesson there. We value things that require effort. If something comes too easy, it is taken lightly. But if it's demanding, it is more compelling. A tough diet will be taken seriously. A difficult work project will be given more attention. We invest ourselves where we feel what we are doing actually matters. When we are given serious responsibilities we step up to the role.
You would expect the opposite to be true. Indeed, there have been well meaning voices in Jewish history that have suggested that the best way to stem the tide of assimilation is by easing the laws of Judaism to make it more appealing. It makes sense. Lower the bar, lighten the burden, and people will be more willing to stay Jewish. But the result was the opposite. The Jewish movements that demanded less from their constituents have more often than not been a gateway out of Judaism rather than a way in. Quite simply, if Judaism asks nothing of me, then that's what Judaism will get.
We don't need to dilute Judaism to make it attractive. We just need to make it accessible. Jewish souls are thirsting for a Judaism that will ask something of them, demand their allegiance to a higher cause, stretch their minds to think deeper, challenge them to live with a sense of purpose and mission.
Perhaps this is one reason why the kabbalists introduced the custom of staying awake all night on Shavuos. Just eating cheesecake was too easy. Let's ask ourselves to give something up on Shavuos to show that it really matters to us. Fluffy Judaism is a tranquilliser. A demanding Judaism keeps us wide awake.