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Shavuot - The Holiday Without a Hook #629

05/29/2020 05:48:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Shavuot: The Holiday with a Hook


Today, my mind is blank, because I don’t quite know how to inspire on this Shavuot — one of the most important, but least celebrated, days on the Jewish calendar.

Everyone knows Passover — it’s about freedom, matzah, Seders and family.

On Sukkot, we dwell in simple huts, ponder our fragility and focus on humility. On Yom Kippur we fast, on Rosh Hashanah we hear the sound of the Shofar, and turn our thoughts inward. On Chanukah we light candles, on Purim we eat hamantaschen, dress in costumes and make noise.

But what about Shavuot? It has no hook. There is no mitzvah attached to it. It is a holiday originally celebrated to thank God for the first harvest fruits.

There is a story about a fellow, who struggles to find a parking space. “Lord,” he prays. “I can’t stand this. If you open a space up for me, I swear I’ll attend synagogue every Shabbat.”

Suddenly, the clouds part and the sun shines on an empty parking spot. Without hesitation, the man says: “Never mind, God, I found one!”

To some extent this year, as Shavuot arrives, we are like the fellow and the parking space.

How many of us have been praying a little harder during the past nine weeks? With every cough or sniffle, each of us has become convinced, we are the next Covid-19 victim. 

Isn’t it interesting how when — God forbid — illness comes to a family, we ask God, “Is it because of something I’ve done?” We mainly engage in intimate conversations with God when we are anxious, lost or unsure.

But do we ever truly turn to God and say, “Thank you?” Most agree that the recent local improvement surrounding the coronavirus has been facilitated by human behavior. We have masked, gloved and kept our distance.

But, there have been many unknowns: Who touched that item in the store before we did? Who was that jogger who ran right by us — mask or no mask? Who is symptomatic, who is not?

These days, I repeatedly hear this: “We are all in this together.”

I am not comfortable with that statement. In many ways, it implies the existence of equality. Many of us live in houses with adequate space to wander about and spiritually ponder. Many have backyards enabling us to inhale the beauty of spring.

But many others, live in cramped quarters. They can’t choose whether to work or not. Indeed, while we are all vulnerable, our susceptibility varies with factors often not completely within our control.

This year, as these troubling, fearsome and painful times show signs of becoming less grave, the hook for this year’s Shavuot may just be “gratitude.”

Shavuot is celebrated to mark the receipt of the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai more than 3,300 years ago.

Pirkei Avot, our ancient collection of rabbinical sayings, reminds us that “Moses received Torah on Mount Sinai.” It does not read, The Torah.

Torah literally means “teaching.” It’s what each of us has learned from our parents, grandparents, teachers, elders and, perhaps, even our children. Torah is about values: How to be a mensch, a good human being — how to be considerate, caring and compassionate. It is about how we interact with God and humanity.

It is a way of life based on discussion, debate, discourse and dialogue. 

What makes us unique is that about 3,300 years ago, Torah was collectively revealed in the wilderness. While some other religions concentrate on private revelation, Judaism focuses on a public one.

There is no flashy prop or physical artifact we offer on Shavuot. And perhaps that’s the point. Indeed, the Torah is not carved in stone. Rather, true Torah is internal.

The Talmud teaches that, according to God, “it is not My desire that you believe in Me. Rather, My will is that you believe in the lessons that I teach you.” Isn’t gratitude one of those lessons?

During this time of recovery, let us consider whether we have been refreshed in some way. Has our faith been both challenged and restored? Can we perform a tangible act to express our appreciation?

A donation to a cause? A commitment to more family time? A promise to focus more on the spiritual and less on the physical?

On this ancient Jewish holiday, let us give thanks for our survival. We have done so since we were officially constituted as a nation more than 3,300 years ago, 50 days after the Exodus.

As a diverse collection of debaters, deliberators and sometimes even doubters, we may not always agree — in fact, we seldom do — but that is part of Torah, which we received.

How we express, that is up to each of us. And perhaps that is the greatest blessing Judaism has to offer. For the timeless Torah received on Mount Sinai is not my Torah or their Torah. It is your Torah.

As we ponder our lives, our mortality and our tradition on this Shavuot, let us ask, what each of us will do with the additional Torah we have acquired during the last nine weeks?

Let us begin by taking a moment to thank God. For I believe that within those reflections, each of us will know exactly what to do next.

It’s what makes the Jewish people and Shavuot so special. For each of us has the power to make our lives and the world into something better.

Especially on this Shavuot — a time to embrace Torah — we turn inward and thank God for all we are, and all we have.

It is why, perhaps, Shavuot is the festival without a hook.

For the holiday — like life itself — is what we make it.

Chag Sameach. Happy holiday. Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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Mon, July 6 2020 14 Tammuz 5780