BY Rabbi Shawn Zevit
This week heralds in Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, one of our three regalim, or pilgrimage festivals, which originated as an agricultural event in biblical times. It celebrates the beginning (the Bikkurim, or first fruits) of the early harvest in Israel:
“On the day of the first fruits, your Feast of Shavuot, when you bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal, you shall observe a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations” (Numbers 28).
“Then you shall observe the Feast of Weeks for the Eternal your God, offering your freewill contribution according as the Eternal your God has blessed you. You shall rejoice before the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 16).
In later centuries, when we were disconnected or driven from lands where we had lived and farmed, and in times of exile, we spiritually transformed this idea and began to view the Torah itself and revelation as the first fruit — and Shavuot as the annual reliving of the download from the mainframe of Divine truth to us wherever we were. This understanding included oral interpretations and written Torah (zman matan Torah), as well as many midrashim/interpretations as to where revelation occurred.
The Torah was given in public, openly in a free place. For had the Torah been given in Eretz Yisrael, the Israelites could have said to the nations of the world, “You have no share in it.” It was given in the wilderness publicly and openly in a place that is free for all, everyone who wished to accept it could … Another reason: to avoid causing dissension among the tribes, else one might have said, “In my territory the Torah was given”… Therefore the Torah was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no one. — Mechilta de R. Ishmael (Ex. 19.2, 20.2)
Our tradition, in both Torah (Deuteronomy 5:19) and Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 28), offer us the idea that all of Israel including future generations were present at Sinai to receive the Ten Utterances and the core directives of the Torah. This mirrors Moshe’s initial experience on Mount Horeb/Sinai (Exodus 3:14) when he has his personal experience of the Divine in the bush that was radiant though not consumed, and God reveals an eternal name — Eheyeh asher Eheyeh or I am/Was/Will Be that I am/Was/Will be — the past, present and future co-arising source of all existence.
As we open to whatever is revealed to us this month, remember that your particular voice and journey offers new insights to the Torah we have inherited, at the same time our rich heritage has much to reveal to us about our current condition. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes in “God Was in This Place”:
“Each person has a Torah, unique to that person, his or her innermost teaching. Some people seem to know their ‘Torahs’ very early in life and speak and sing them in a myriad of ways. Others spend their whole lives stammering, shaping, and rehearsing them. Some are long, some are short. Some are intricate and poetic; others are only a few words and still others can only be spoken by gesture and example. But every Soul has a Torah. To hear another, say their Torah is a precious gift”.
Especially in the deeply challenging, sometimes distressing, traumatizing and reactivating pandemic times we live in, with challenges to our physical and mental well-being alongside economic, political, racial, anti-Semitic and climate justice issues, we need each other’s Torah and the values and teachings of our people, the wisdom of many faiths and cultures, the health and scientific communities and the Earth itself to grow and flourish.
So, what will we open to receive, reflect and act on this Shavuot of 5780/2020? How will the past, future and current generations of the Jewish people, and all of humanity view our values, beliefs and actions? What are we embodying or rejecting from the Torah handed down to us? Which additional chapters are we writing with our lives in these extreme times that future generations — here with us today — will have to live into as a result of our actions or inactions?
COVID-19 has put humanity at the foot of a global Sinai with a challenge to all to say “na’aseh v’nishma: we will do and we will listen!” The previous “normal” many describe a desire to return to, filled with its opportunities and great strides, has been built on racial injustice and gender inequity, an emphasis on material possessions with a disregard for the planet, inadequate preventative and responsive care for everyone’s health and well-being- not only the privileged.
We are not born free and equal, but we are born to become free and equal. It is the goal of all social endeavor to bring about equality in the inequality into which people are born. It is the goal of spiritual endeavor to make humanity free. —
R. Mordecai M. Kaplan,
diary, June 1915
Every act of kindness and generosity, every mask worn and caring distance kept, every virtual campaign for justice or tzedakah you are part of in-home, with loved ones or online is contributing to our collective story. What will you open to receive at the foot of reality this year and what will be the fruits of your harvest from these unprecedented times? What Torah will you embrace and live out and what truths will you ignore or resist?
I look forward to gathering with you across the generations and realities past, present and future, sharing our wisdom and receiving new insights together — once again. Chag sameach l’kulam!
Rabbi Shawn Israel Zevit is the rabbi at Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia and co-founder/director of the Davennen Leader’s Training Institute. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.