When the Timely Fights the Timeless


What do the riots at the Gaza border have to do with the Jewish festival of Shavuot? What does the dramatic and historic move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem have to do with the custom of baking cheesecakes for Shavuot, or the ritual of learning Torah all night?

One of the dilemmas of Jewish journalism is what to do when the timely interferes with the timeless. We decided several months ago that Shavuot would be our cover story for this week. Since the festival commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Sinai some 3,300 years ago, it coincided perfectly with the release of Dennis Prager’s new book, “The Rational Bible.”

So, that was the plan — we would honor a holiday of Torah by reviewing a new book about the Torah.

And then, of course, reality intruded. The timeless Torah got ambushed by the timely news.

In fact, rarely do I recall a time period with so much consequential news — from the U.S. backing out of the Iran nuclear deal to the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem to the violent riots at the Gaza border, and, yes, even to Israel’s victory at the Eurovision Song Contest, when 200 million viewers watched Netta Barzilai take home the grand prize with an irresistible song that featured the memorable line, “I’m not your toy, you stupid boy.”

As we shoot down the rapids of this never-ending news cycle, Judaism comes to remind us that there are little coves on the side of the river that are waiting for us to pitch a tent, light a fire and appreciate the beauty and complexity around us.

Can a cover that commemorates an event from 3,300 years ago survive so much hot news? I can think of at least three timely cover stories we could have done instead of the one on Shavuot.

And yet, we decided to stick with the Shavuot cover. Why? For one thing, it reminds us that there’s more to life than news. News is sexy. It’s an adrenalin rush, a sugar high. I have a few trusted news sites that I know will give me a news hit every 15 minutes or so.

And when I don’t go to them, they come to me, either through a Twitter feed or an email blast or any other number of digital bursts.

All day long, I get hit with news items, mostly about politics, the Jewish world and Hollywood. And here’s the crazy part — I don’t complain. I’m used to it. It makes me feel like I’m always in the know. When I meet people, I feel empowered because I know “what’s going on” about the important issues in the world.

How can a 3,300-year-old story compete with all those hot news stories, especially an ancient story that offers us the same traditions and rituals year after year, without fault? Is there value to a story that is always there, a story that is rooted in eternity?

One of the best metaphors I ever heard about the challenge of parenting was, “Give your kids roots and wings.” As I interpret that statement, the “timeless” provides the roots and the “timely” provides the wings.

In a crazy world that keeps going faster and faster, the timeless is what keeps us grounded. Perhaps the best example is Shabbat, that ancient ritual that compels us to slow down and reconnect with our roots and our humanity.

Maybe that is one essential question of Shavuot — trying to understand why and how a news story can still be newsworthy after 3,300 years.

At the recent Milken Global Summit, I was immersed in a throng of high-achieving innovation junkies who offered smart and sophisticated answers to society’s ills. It was impressive. And yet, one of the most popular panels was one about life longevity — how to slow down and learn habits that will increase both the quality and length of your life.

When I spoke to one of the panelists, Arianna Huffington, after her talk, one of the first words out of her mouth was, “Shabbat.” She told me that her new movement, Thrive Global, is eager to start a “Shabbat track” because this Jewish ritual of weekly renewal is just what the world needs right now.

The news will keep coming at us, whether we like it or not. We’ll celebrate when the news is good, we’ll be sad when it’s bad, we’ll be confused when it’s good and bad, we’ll argue over whether it’s good or bad, and then we’ll all wait for the next hit.

As we shoot down the rapids of this never-ending news cycle, Judaism comes to remind us that there are little coves on the side of the river that are waiting for us to pitch a tent, light a fire and appreciate the beauty and complexity around us.

One of those little coves is the festival of Shavuot, when we recall that day when our ancestors gathered in a desert and accepted a book that we still study today. Maybe that is one essential question of Shavuot — trying to understand why and how a news story can still be newsworthy after 3,300 years.

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