The Talmud notes that there are two sections in the Torah known as tochacha, each containing a litany of dire warnings. Both are read at significant points in the calendar, one—Parshas Ki Savo—shortly before Rosh Hashana, and the other—Parshas Bechukosai—shortly before Shavuos. The placement in the calendar implies the hope—expressed beautifully in the Talmud—that תכלה שנה וקללותיה תחל שנה וברכותיה, may the old year end with its curses and the new year begin with its blessings. The Talmud itself notes how Rosh Hashanah is obviously a new year, while Shavuos serves more modestly as the new year for trees.
Beyond the trees, Shavuos has a fundamental similarity to Rosh Hashanah. The task of the high holiday season is teshuva, which has as a central component kabbalah al ha’asid, a commitment to fulfill God’s will more completely in the future. Shavuos similarly commemorates the moment when the Jewish people made the ultimate kabbalah al ha’asid, undertaking to fulfill all of Hashem’s commandments by accepting the Torah.
This common theme of Rosh Hashanah and Shavuos highlights the critical ingredient in producing a genuine turning point. A new year is not just about turning a page in the calendar. That would certainly not be meaningful enough to allow us to end and move on from the difficult chapter of the preceding year. Renewal—a truly new and different year—comes with reflection, commitment and change that can be stimulated by even the virtual experience of reading of the difficulties chronicled in the Torah. We can likewise use the voice of current events, of real life, as a contributing factor to such reflection and to true commitment and change.
As we move towards Shavuos with all the difficult experiences of this past year, month and week, let us take a chance to reflect and to commit, to do better and to be better, to identify the gems and the perspective that these challenges have granted us—whether in our personal, familial or communal lives—and truly turn a page, thus closing a chapter of great difficulty and gaining a new blessing for a new year.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization.