Friday, May 25, 2012

Toward A Contemporary Definition of Shavuot

Shavuot, Gan Shmuel 1936 - PikiWiki
Ask a Talmud Torah student what the meaning of Shavuot is, and you’ll probably get a textbook answer encompassing any or all of the following: It’s the Festival of Weeks, the date Jews commemorate the giving of the Torah by G-d and it commemorates the ending of the Counting of the Omer, that intense period of loss, mourning and self reflection that begins with the last days of Passover and concludes with the welcoming of Shavuot.

True, Shavuot is all of these things. It’s history, it’s religious symbolism and it’s our link with our past when Jews relied upon the manual counting of handfuls of wheat at harvest time.
Wheat Field, Israel - Victor Beruzcov

But these days we don’t count handfuls of wheat for sale on the global market. In fact, time moves by even smaller increments that reflect the ever changing weight we put on the commerce of our ancestors. The omer has been replaced by the byte, the bushel by the meg. Volume moves in gigabytes and terabytes; relevance is nuanced by what we can exchange in information, not what we can eat in a season.

The proliferation of information is no longer dependent upon runners who can dash across hillsides, and isn’t restricted to the distance of human endurance. Our world is shared in milliseconds, not hours or days.

Child Refugee - Steve Evans
An excerpt of the Torah can be read in Vancouver British Columbia Canada and shared in a millisecond’s difference in Sydney Australia; a child’s life can be transformed in a day by a magnanimous donor in another country fulfilling Gimilut Chasidim.

So what should be our means today for acknowledging Shavuot? Do changes in our society warrant changes in how we celebrate significant religious events? Are there ways that we can, and do reflect their importance that will help us pass on the meaning of a significant Jewish event?

During the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, the celebration of Shavuot was lost, or at least diminished in many American Jewish homes. In his May 12, 2010 commentary, Forward Magazine's Editor-at-Large, JJ Goldberg offers an explanation for this phenomenon that however, humorous and almost tongue-in-cheek, hits to the heart of Jewish identity. 

“The pomp deficit is only a symptom … of Shavuot’s larger problem: its dour message,” says Goldberg.
A message that was, and often still is, perceived as “the handing out of the rulebook, with its bounty of Thou Shalts and Thou Shalt Nots,” not necessarily the uplifting story of a people released from captivity or triumphant in battle (as are Passover and Hanukkah) or the engaging family tradition of experiencing a brightly decorated sukkah in the back yard. For many, Shavuot’s importance lost its relevance as secular Judaism came to the fore in American society in the early ‘60s. Coincidentally, with that loss went the relevance of maintaining Jewish religious traditions that impart who we are.

Today there are many ways to look at the significance of a holiday that gave us the ability to appreciate identity. Yes, there are the classic stories about the Jewish people’s elevated status when it was chosen to carry the Torah, but there are a myriad of contemporary ways to express the gift our ancestors did not have the privilege or human experience to express.
  • Since the time of Mount Sinai, we have begun to appreciate the value of a balanced ecology. We have learned that with foresight, we can turn desert landscape into a habitable universe. Over the years we have found ways to teach our children that our heritage and Israel’s ecology are inextricably linked.
  • We have converted ancient lessons into medical accomplishments. Israel stands as a technological leader in medicine in areas such as exoskeletal prosthesis for victims of war and terror attacks, cancer research and rehabilitative medicine, all of which underscore mitzvot that preserve and sanctify human life. The Israel Defense Force's Save and Rescue Unit uses what it has learned about saving lives in terrorist attacks to train and aid communities in other parts of the world.
  • We have learned that a community isn’t restricted by civic or national borders, and that Jewish history transcends its own lineage in surprising ways that sometimes take hundreds or thousands of years to discover. Communities like the Bnei Menashe in India; Chueta Jews in Mallorca (page 32), Spain; and Iquito Jews in the Amazon reaffirm that the Jewish People aren’t homogeneous in heritage and can be found in every corner of the Earth. 

  • We have also found ways to connect with and nurture the Jewish spirit in places that were decimated during the Shoah. Places like Poland, Germany, Spain and Russia have reclaimed their Jewish heritage much as did those same countries after pogroms hundreds of years earlier. History may repeat its mistakes, but it has also taught us that the Jewish spirit is strong when supported by others who care.
  • We have learned that women have a powerful voice that carries its own measure and its own value, and that Jewish identity matures, strengthens and evolves with each generation that strives to teach the story of Shavuot to the next.   
And we have learned that the Jewish People is nothing without the Torah it was entrusted at Mount Sinai. Shavuot serves as our eidetic reminder of the importance of that gift, and that it is our ability to translate its message into a contemporary context and to share that significance with others that continues the Torah’s legacy. 

Child at Shavuot - Mykaul

1 comment:

  1. Nice work, my friend. I have been very aware of the approach of Shavuot as it marks the Hebrew date of my mother's death. Depending on the movement of the calendar, it can be the beginning - as is the case this year - of a lengthy period of emotional memories, as the Western date isn't until June... However, as we know, life goes on, and I have been considering, for our family marking of the festival, to venture into a little practiced culinary adventure and make a cheesecake...! Time will tell as to whether that actually comes to pass. I will keep you posted.