The relationship between God and the Jewish people is compared to that of a bride and groom, as we read: “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Yeshayahu 62:5). In a similar vein, we read: “Thus said the Lord: I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride – how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (Yirmiyahu 2:2). The Exodus from Egypt is considered an act of betrothal, because with it, God separated us from all the nations and sanctified us by making us His special nation. The day of the giving of the Torah is likened to a wedding day (Ta’anit 26b) because through the Torah our lives are intertwined with God.
The Sages explain that even after the Jews left Egypt they still could not receive the Torah, as during their enslavement they had descended to the forty-ninth level of impurity. Just as a menstruating woman needs to count seven days before she can immerse and purify herself, so too the Jews needed to count seven weeks in order to purify themselves from the impurity of Egypt and become fit to connect with God (based on Zohar, Emor, p. 97).
The number seven indicates the complete manifestation of something, as the world was created in seven days. Indeed, every physical entity has six sides – four lateral sides, a top, and a bottom – as well as a seventh aspect: its essence. Man has seven facets as well, which is why it takes seven days to go from a state of defilement to a state of purity. For seven days, one prepares every facet of selfhood to rise from the defilement to purity. The same is true of purification for sacred endeavors in this world, like eating teruma and sacrificial foods and a woman’s purification for her husband. However, receiving the divine Torah, whose lofty status belongs to the supernal worlds, requires a much deeper count: seven weeks instead of seven days. In this count, each of the seven numbers is manifested through all seven of its facets. Thus, our purification to receive the Torah is complete. Every aspect of our character undergoes refinement and expresses its yearning and anticipation for receiving the Torah. We were thus able to achieve the highest heights, beyond nature, and receive the divine Torah, through which we are able to perfect and elevate the world, bringing it closer to redemption.
Throughout those seven weeks, Israel eagerly awaited and anxiously anticipated receiving the Torah. A midrash relates that when Moshe announced to Israel that after leaving Egypt they would worship God at Mount Sinai and receive the Torah, they asked him, “When will this take place?” Moshe answered, “After fifty days.” Then, due to their great love for God, they counted every day, saying, “One day has passed,” “two days have passed,” and so on, every day. Because of their love and anticipation for the Torah, it seemed like a long time to them (Shibolei Ha-leket §236). Because of this, their Torah endured, as the Sages state: “If one’s fear of sin precedes his wisdom, his wisdom will endure. If his wisdom precedes his fear of sin, his wisdom will not endure” (m. Avot 3:9).
The preparation and purification leading up to Shavu’ot are so important that they give it its primary name – Ḥag Ha-shavu’ot. As we read: “You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe the Festival of Weeks for the Lord your God” (Devarim 16:9-10). Similarly, we read: “You shall observe the Festival of Weeks, of the first fruits of the wheat harvest” (Shemot 34:22).
Since preparation is so important, one should be careful not to begin Ma’ariv of Shavu’ot before tzeit ha-kokhavim, so that every bit of the seven-week preparation period may be utilized, and the preparation for receiving the Torah can be completed (MB 494:1).