Four local rabbis discuss the holiday of Shavuot…
Rabbi Yitzchok Adler
Beth David Synagogue, West Hartford
Those who knew never said anything definitive and those who were not sure, had a great deal to say about what Mount Sinai might have looked like when our Israelite ancestors arrived there just about six weeks after fleeing from Egypt. Some tour guides today proudly proclaim with certainty that they know exactly which desert mountain is Sinai; the more honest operators confess that the best that they can offer might be an educated guess. It is one of history’s ironies, if not one of its best kept secrets. Which hilltop was the site of history’s most impacting revelation, and what did it look like that day?
Judaism has chosen to embrace a set of hypotheses. First, that the mountain was among the less imposing in the area; second, that before the arrival of the people it was a barren mountain; third, that it blossomed and bloomed in anticipation of the presentation of the Ten Commandments; and lastly, it returned to its anonymous and nondescript posture as soon as the people of Israel departed on their journey deeper into the desert. Rabbinic theory plays itself out in custom with the practice of decorating synagogue sanctuaries and yeshiva study halls with plants and seasonal greenery in honor of the holiday of Shavuot. As the mountain was adorned with botanical life when the Ten Commandments were revealed and presented, so too should the places where Torah is read and studied on the anniversary of that revelation also be resplendent with flowers and ferns.
Being that no one knows for sure, why did tradition err on the side of the magnificent, in favor of the miraculous, implying the most amazing and awe-inspiring of possibilities and options? This pattern is the default pattern for Judaism. When given a choice, we seek to be joyful. We favor optimism over other attitudes, we embrace hope despite long odds. It does no harm at all to believe that the day of revelation was a beautiful day, and that nature joined with God in setting the moment. Perhaps there was an orchestrated intent, more than a serendipitous coincidence, that set the season of this event and subsequent holiday when nature is at its most beautiful.
On any given day of life, there are reasons aplenty for individuals and communities to be overwhelmed by everything that is wrong and distressful. Shavuot, with its distinct customs and traditions, draws our attention to what should more often be the actualizers of our thinking and behavior. We seek that which provides encouragement and optimism, we valid our belief in goodness with choices that propel positive thoughts and attitudes. Judaism does not strive to create or fashion false realities; Judaism does challenge us to see life through the lens of affirmative hopefulness. After all, if we want to live in a world that is identified by its goodness, the best place to begin is through its timeless covenants. Beginnings are often difficult, but more often they are exciting and wonderful.
Rabbi Gary Atkins
Beth Hillel Synagogue, Bloomfield
Shavuot is called “z’man matan torataynu,” the time of the giving of the Torah. We are all called to stand at Mt. Sinai and take/receive/ accept the Torah into our lives. As one sage taught, it is thus equally z’man kabbalat torataynu, the time of receiving the Torah… as this act of covenant requires two partners.
In today’s world this covenant is assisted by rabbis. We become the k’lei kodesh, the holy instruments, that mediate and teach and thus enable this brit, this covenantal act.
Every spring, before Shavuot, just as colleges have their graduations, seminaries ordain new classes of rabbis, who then go out to enrich the Jewish world. Whether as educators, chaplains, as congregational rabbis, or whatever other tasks they choose, they (and we who have been working with Am Yisrael – the Jewish people) feel this to be a sacred calling.
One colleague wrote these moving words regarding the recent ordination ceremony at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Much has changed since my own ordination 38 years ago, but there is still much with which my soul resonates:
“Today’s Commencement and Ordination Ceremony at the Jewish Theological Seminary were simply magical. Tinged with the Divine. Better. Deeper than that: permeated with God. A school where once mysticism was de-emphasized at best began today’s ceremonies with a mystical text by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook….
Today was pervaded by a sense of calling… Chancellor Arnold Eisen reminded us that the morning’s festivities occurred during the week in which we close the Book of Vayikra/Leviticus and take our first step “into the wilderness,” into an unsown land, a journey of discovery and covenant where sacred leadership is the key to survival. Today was a charge to us all to remember that holy leaders are called to unlock the vast potential of God’s Promise.”
All Jews have the awe-filled challenge of seeking a fulfilling, purposeful life. We are all on life journeys that both seek personal redemption on one hand and the goal of improving and blessing the world on the other. As we stand at Sinai this coming secular and religious holiday weekend, may we realize that the essence of our being is not barbeques and beaches, as nice as they are, but the sacred calling of being God’s Am Segulah, God’s holy people.
Rabbi Yosef Wolvovsky
The Benet Rothstein Chabad
Jewish Center, Glastonbury
The first chapter of Ethics of our Father begins: “Moses received the Torah from Sinai, and passed it down to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders; the Elders to the Prophets; and the Prophets passed it down to the Men of the Great Assembly.”
The commentators tell us that each one of these generations teach us a very important lesson about the Torah. Each “rung in the ladder” provides us with a necessary tool in order to “receive” the Torah:
1) Moses = Humility
While Moses clearly knew who he was – that he was the one chosen by God to communicate His will to man – the Torah still states that he was “the most humble man upon the face of the earth.” Perhaps Moses’ greatness itself lead to his extreme humility, for he acknowledged that the gifts bestowed upon him were of Divine origin. Who knows? Had someone else been given the same tools, he might have accomplished even more. Moses sets the example for one who wishes to access the Torah: As a precondition to properly study Divine wisdom, we must be humble. We must acknowledge that intellect itself is a gift from above.
2) Joshua = Devotion
The description of Joshua in the Torah is of one who “would not budge from the tent.” Indeed, Joshua is the model of diligence and perseverance. Furthermore, it is because of this faithfulness that he was entrusted with the mantle of leadership after Moses passed on. We must learn from Joshua and apply ourselves with devotion to the study of Torah. Indeed, we are told, “You shall study it day and night.”
3) Elders = Sacrifice
In Hebrew, the word for “elder” is “zaken.” According to the Talmud, zaken is related to “kanah,” which means “to purchase.” The elders refer to those who have “purchased wisdom.” We must be ready to sacrifice for the sake of study. As our sages put it: “If someone tells you, ‘I have not exerted effort, but I have accomplished,’ do not believe him!”
4) Prophets = Spirit
In truth, we cannot attain Torah knowledge by ourselves. It is, after all, the wisdom of God! Rather, the Torah must be “given” to us. In this way, the study of Torah is different from any other intellectual pursuit. It is not enough to possess the intellectual ability; we must make ourselves proper “vessels” for the Torah. This is done through perfecting our spiritual qualities.
5) Great Assembly = Application
The Great Assembly was a panel of 120 rabbis who led the Jewish people during a time of many challenges. This council applied their knowledge to address the unique needs of their time, when we returned home after decades in exile.
The Torah ought not to be studied as an abstract theory. Even the loftiest of its ideas must be practically applied in day-to-day living.
Rabbi Stephen Fuchs
President, World Union for Progressive Judaism
Rabbi Fuchs is the former spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel (Reform) in West Hartford.
One of the great examples of Progressive Jewish thinking — some 2000 years before there was anything called Progressive Judaism — regards the Festival of Shavuot.
In the Torah, Shavuot was strictly an agricultural holiday, a celebration of both the first summer fruits and the barley harvest. Our ingenious rabbinic sages reformed (and I use that word purposely) the festival into the anniversary of when our biblical ancestors received Torah at Mount Sinai. We cannot be sure of exactly how it happened, but I imagine a scenario much like this:
A group of concerned rabbis were discussing the state of Jewish life.
One sage mused, “You know, Shavuot just doesn’t attract the great crowds to celebrate in Jerusalem that it once did.”
A second rabbi answered: “That’s true, but times have changed!”
A third participant: “You are absolutely right! When we were primarily an agrarian society, first fruits and the barley harvest were compelling reasons to celebrate. Now, that we have become more urban, those occasions don’t mean as much to many people.”
First sage: “What can we do?”
A fourth participant spoke up: “I’ve got it! If you look at the Torah, Shavuot comes 50 days after the first day of Pesach. That ‘s just about the same amount of time that it took our ancestors to travel to Mount Sinai after they left Egypt! Even though the Torah does not make the connection explicitly, we can infer it and celebrate Shavuot from now on — without denying its biblical roots — as a joyous celebration of when we received Torah at Mount Sinai,”
A fifth sage asks: “Can we do that?”
The fourth responds: Not only can we, we must!! If we want our precious Jewish heritage to endure, we must be skilled interpreters of biblical texts so that they speak meaningfully to the present and future realities of our people.
In this way, I can easily imagine, the rabbis of the Talmudic period took a fading festival and gave it an historical underpinning and new life for future generations. In similar fashion, our early Reform leaders made Shavuot the time when tenth or ninth grade students celebrate Confirmation.
The example of what our ancient sages did with Shavuot should inspire our Jewish thinking today. If we want our precious heritage to remain vibrant and relevant, we must always be eager to embrace opportunities to make our traditions and celebrations speak more meaningfully to our children and grandchildren!
When we do, let us rejoice that the process of continually “reforming” Judaism is wholly consistent — and not at odds — with the process by which our rabbinic sages enabled Judaism to speak to the realities of their time and place.