“On the day of the first fruits, your Feast of Weeks, when you bring an offering of new grain to the Lord, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations.”
Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, begins this Thursday evening and continues through Saturday evening after sundown. This holiday occurs seven weeks after Passover and is considered a major holiday in the Jewish calendar. As Jewish holidays go, Shavuot is easy – no additional dietary laws to follow like Passover or temporary structures to build like Sukkot. Just two days – only one in Israel and some denominations of Judaism – in late spring to celebrate an agricultural milestone of the first fruits of the season as well as mark the most spiritually significant event for the Jewish people: receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
For such a seemingly simple holiday, the origin story and theology of Shavuot evokes deep complexities. For many Jews, the revelation at Sinai is to be taken literally: God spoke to Moses and dictated each word of the Torah. For others, the Sinai narrative can be understood as the recording of an extraordinary encounter with the Divine, one that inspired the Israelite nation to record the event and create an oral and written tradition that continues to this day. Yet others believe the entire story to be a metaphorical legend, albeit one that serves as the cornerstone of our people’s identity and core beliefs.
Theological differences aside, Shavuot is a powerful affirmation of Jewish peoplehood. The Torah was given to the entire Israelite nation; it provided the essential framework for a distinct identity and culture, as well as a definitive geo-political roadmap for the Jewish people’s journey to its eventual homeland. Having this experience as a nation after being freed from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites were able to form a cohesive body, one with the strength, resilience, and commonality of heritage and fate to face enormous challenges.
Earlier this week I had the opportunity to participate in an uplifting demonstration of peoplehood, teaching in our own community’s pre-Shavuot Tikkun. It is traditional to stay awake learning on the night of Shavuot, and many synagogues and community organizations sponsor all night learning events. This year, that will be difficult, if not impossible, due to COVID-19 restrictions. In an affirmation of the values of pluralism and peoplehood, rabbis throughout the DMV and beyond volunteered to participate in a community-wide virtual learning event sponsored by Federation, the JCRC and the Washington Board of Rabbis. Rabbis from across the religious spectrum shared their Torah, demonstrating that there is more than one way to understand our holy texts. This was the essence of Shavuot at its finest – sharing a powerful experience and growing stronger as a community, strengthened by its diversity and united in common tradition.
A recording of Monday night’s learning experience can be found here.
Wishing all a Chag Sameach and a Shabbat Shalom.