The Festival of Shavuot
Today is the festival of Shavuot – one of three pilgrimage holidays in ancient Israel, along with Sukkot and Passover. During Passover, we take on the role of Israelites, leaving Egypt, free at last. During Sukkot, we relive the experience of wandering in the desert, vulnerable to the elements. And on Shavuot, we become the Israelites, waiting at the base of Mt. Sinai. According to traditional Judaism, Moses has gone up the mountain to receive the divine word to share with people. As the people waited in anticipation, the mountain sprouted flowers in celebration.
As Humanist Jews, it is not difficult to find modern, relevant meaning in Passover and Sukkot. On Passover, we reflect on and rededicate ourselves to the ideal of freedom. On Sukkot, we symbolically place ourselves into the position of the less fortunate and, therefore, strengthen our compassion and resolve to work towards equity.
But, what about Shavuot? How can the message of revelation resonate with us? If we don’t believe in Moses communing with God, then, what why are we symbolically waiting at the mountain base?
I find beauty and meaning in the texts of Judaism, even if I believe them not be holy but to be wholly human documents, written by scholars, poets, and everyday people. What I love especially about Jewish texts is that they represent an ongoing dialogue between generations of Jews, trying to make sense and meaning about our crazy world. I don’t see divinity in revelation, rather I see people in revelation. Through dialogue, debate, and questioning, we come to understand the most salient of truths, ideas, and concepts.
On Shavuot, perhaps, the Israelites were not simply waiting at the base of the mountain. Perhaps, the Israelites were talking, arguing, contemplating and, most importantly, listening. What happened on the mountain top, it wasn’t their experience and it isn’t ours. We position ourselves among each other (with social distancing, of course) to be able to hear and be heard. Revelation takes place in our own voices. Revelation takes place with our mouths, our ears, and our mind.
Our country needs much more of this type of revelation – from people sharing and listening. This week has been so, so difficult. Not only did we experience the 100,000th death from Covid-19, but we were also shaken by the death of George Floyd - yet another horrifying racist incidence of violence and police brutality.
I’d like to share a bit of human revelation with you for this week, this Shavuot. It is an article, written by an African-American author named Danielle Cadet, for white readers about the deaths of George Lloyd and Ahmad Arbery and Covid-19. Racial healing will not happen until we truly hear each other.
While on our Jewish calendar, today, we celebrate receiving the Torah. Perhaps, by opening ourselves up to listen to one another, we can mark Shavuot as it was originally celebrated – by convening at the mountain, talking, and listening.
Chag Sama’ach – Happy Holiday, Shabbat Shalom & Stay Healthy,
Rabbi Debbie Cohen