Besides being the most widely celebrated of the Jewish festivals, Passover is also the most widely misunderstood not only by Jews but by Christians.

Case in point: The gorgeously produced 1998 animated film "Prince of Egypt," with Moses as its hero, completely missed the significance of the Passover story. The film ends in just the wrong place after Moses has split the Sea of Reeds, letting the Jews pass through safely before the walls of water collapse upon the pursuing Egyptian army. It is depicted as the story's denouement, toward which everything else was leading.

Hollywood is not alone in misunderstanding where the Exodus story's climax belongs. Many Jews, and others, see the liberation of the Israelite tribes from Egyptian slavery as the whole point of the Passover narrative. <>
Not so at all. The purpose behind God's redeeming of the Israelites can be summarized in a word, and a holiday: Shavuot.

In contemporary America, Shavuot is certainly the least observed of Judaism's biblical festivals. It comes on the sixth of the month of Sivan seven weeks after Passover and celebrates the giving of the Torah and the 10 Commandments to Israel at Mt. Sinai, an event that occurred some 50 days after the Exodus. That event, and not the picturesque crossing of the Sea of Reeds, was the climax toward which the Exodus led the children of Israel.

The two holidays are so closely linked in significance and in Jewish liturgical practice that at the conclusion of the seder meal on Passover's second night, Jews formally begin the counting of the omer (an ancient unit of measurement), a ritual dating back to the days of the Temple in Jerusalem that serves as a countdown of the days that will conclude on Shavuot.

The Torah is the commission from God to the Israelites to be His "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6), with all that entails by way of the unique grammar, that is, the mitzvot, or commandments. It is the covenant that created the Jewish people out of the Israelite tribes and defined the Jews' relationship with God. In the scheme of world history, were it not for the revelation of the Torah at Sinai, were it not for Shavuot, the Exodus and its commemoration at Passover would have been of little significance.

True, one of the most beloved songs of the seder's liturgical script is called "Dayenu." In Hebrew, that word means literally, "It would have been enough for us." (Hebrew is a compact language, often requiring only one word to say something that in English would take a whole sentence.) "Dayenu" includes the puzzling line, "Had He [God] brought us before Mt. Sinai, but not given us the Torah, it would have been enough for us."

What? Didn't I just say that freeing us from Egypt would have been pointless had God not then given us the Commandments?

The solution lies in seeing that Hebrew is not only compact but precise. Dayenu-"It would have been enough for us," for us specifically, the "us" who were victims of Egyptian enslavement, escaped being chattel, who would have been happy simply to be out from under the burden of pharaoh's subjugation.

But would it have been enough for God, or for humanity, if the Lord had merely brought us up from Egypt and left us, free, at the foot of Mt. Sinai without giving us the Torah? Human history was meant to be the history of our priesthood in service of mankind. The foundation, the constitution, of our priesthood is Torah. For mankind, a Jewish people freed from slavery but unacquainted with Torah would not have been enough.

That is why Passover is so insistently linked with Shavuot. This, incidentally, helps makes sense of the overall structure of the Jewish religious calendar, which revolves around two clusters of holidays separated by six months, each cluster associated with one of Torah's distinct "new years." One Jewish "new year" comes in the spring with Passover followed by Shavuot. Another "new year," in the autumn, commences the other festival-cluster: Rosh Hashanah followed immediately by Yom Kippur followed immediately by Sukkot.

To put the matter simply: The first cluster (Passover-Shavuot) is about origins-the origins of Torah, hence the birth of the Jewish people whose identity is defined by Torah. The second cluster (Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur-Sukkot) is about continuity: "Now that we're Jews, what are we supposed to do?"

At Rosh Hashanah, God evaluates our performance as His partners in the covenant of Torah. At Yom Kippur we renounce our actions that amount to violations of the contract with God and resolve to improve our level of compliance. At Sukkot, we appreciate God's tender protection and abiding love despite our failures, which is the reason behind our spending the week of this most joyous of festivals camping out in huts (in Hebrew, sukkot), unprotected by the sheltering architecture of our permanent dwellings.

Sukkot is also the apocalyptic Jewish holiday, anticipating the time when the priestly purpose of Jewish existence will be fulfilled, with the world's peoples coming up to Jerusalem's rebuilt Temple "every year to worship the King, the Lord, Master of Legions, and to celebrate the festival of Sukkot" (Zechariah 14:16).

When you step back to a contemplative distance and observe the integrity of the Torah's calendar, it becomes obvious why leaving out any part or element in the whole, perfect structure-like, for example, venerating Passover but blowing off Shavuot leads to the structure's collapse.