Shavuot, when we became who we are

Rabbinic tradition teaches that when God spoke at Sinai, the world was silenced — birds did not sing, breezes did not rustle leaves in the trees. Out of that profound silence came the word, and were the world silent again, for even an instant, we could hear the everlasting echo of God’s voice.

In one way that is a beautiful metaphor for the holiday of Shavuot. Among the holidays, it is “silent” in that no custom imposes itself on our imagination. There is no sukkah, no seder. It slips by, for many Jews, almost unnoticed. Yet the echoing voice makes it the central moment in our history. On Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah, the establishment of the Jewish covenant.

The rabbis tell us that the Torah is the ketubah between God and the Jewish people. A ketubah is sometimes called a wedding contract, but it is better called a covenant. It enshrines sacred obligations. Jews are a covenantal people; we are bound to one another and to God by the idea of everlasting, mutual obligation. Sinai was the chuppah, and Shavuot is our anniversary.

On our anniversary we recall what made us a people. It is customary to stay up at night to study on Shavuot in order to demonstrate symbolically that we stand at the ready to receive the Torah. It is also a signal of acceptance and of passion.

Our tradition advises us to read the Torah as a love letter. One who receives a letter from a beloved reviews it again and again, searching each word and clause for significance, noting what is said and what remains unsaid. We read the Torah with the lens of the lover, dwelling over each word, unwilling to set it aside, certain that to study it once more will help us understand.

The Book of Ruth is read on this holiday because Ruth took upon herself the Jewish tradition in full. She accepted, as a true convert must, both the people and God. Israel embraces more than the individual’s relationship to the Divine; we are bound to one another. When Ruth declares to Naomi, “Your people shall be my people and your God my God,” she epitomizes the covenantal message of mutual interdependence, past and future, the dual covenant of faith and of fate.

There is a custom to eat dairy foods on Shavuot, given for a variety of reasons, including the inventive idea that the laws of kashrut were unclear before the giving of the Torah and eating dairy was therefore less complicated. It may also be tied to the idea of eating lighter fare, which makes it easier to stay awake for the tikkun. Symbolism and practicality are at times symbiotic in ritual life.

The great Saadia Gaon taught that we are a nation only by virtue of our Torah. For a people dispersed throughout the world, the Torah was the one precious possession — containing our history, our values and our practice — that bound us one to the other. Shavuot is the moment that made us who we are. We celebrate, on this holiday, our relationship to God and to one another. As we hold the Torah aloft, we also celebrate our identity as Jews, eternal people of the covenant.

How to Give Torah

There are some ideas so familiar to us that it’s easy to forget how radical they are. Every human being is created in God’s image. Every life is worth a world. The entire people received Torah at Mount Sinai.

For most people throughout history, including today, a spiritual quest or revelation has meant an individual encounter with the Divine — often on a mountaintop and in solitude. Definitely a personal, private relationship.

Shavuot commemorates the Jewish people’s grandest moment of revelation — on a mountain, but definitely not in solitude. Absolutely personal, but not in the least private. Zeman matan torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah, had many of the (ecumenical) markers of great spiritual encounters: preparation and purification, fear and trembling, synesthesia and miracles, mission and covenant. But it had one rare and defining component: It was shared.

Biblical descriptions of giving the Torah vary in some details, but the message of inclusion is unmistakable. Exodus 20:15: “And all the people witnessed the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the shofar….” Deuteronomy 5:19: “Adonai spoke [the Ten Commandments] to all your assembly at the mountain … with a mighty voice that was not heard again.”

The most radical statement of inclusiveness appears toward the end of Deuteronomy (29:9-14), as Moses reviews the nature of the covenant: “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God — the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; your children, your women and your stranger who is in your camp; from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water — to enter into covenant with Adonai…. Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath, but with the one who stands here with us this day before Adonai our God, and also with the who is not here with us this day.”

Ancestors and descendants, women and men, political leaders and manual workers, natives and strangers, those present and those not present — everyone is included. And we are all present together this day — this day of revelation at Sinai (Shavuot), this day that our ancestors listened to Moses on the plains of Moab, this day — any day — that we open up the Torah and read this message. Revelation occurs in the eternal present tense. That is why the blessing upon reading the Torah is phrased “noten hatorah” — Blessed are You, God, who gives [or constant Giver of] the Torah.

Ancient rabbinic commentaries highlighted the diversity of participants at Mount Sinai. Converts were said to be present. Pregnant women were present, too, although the voice they heard was softer, so as not to startle and induce miscarriage. When Exodus 19:2 describes the Israelites pitching camp before Sinai, the verb used (vayichan) is singular. One interpretation is that, even with the enormous numbers and diversity of the participants, the Israelites were absolutely One with God and one another at Sinai.

In the classic rabbinic analogy, the experience at Sinai is like a wedding. The Jewish people and God enter into holy and mutual covenant. A wedding is, from one point of view, a rather strange custom. In honor of a most sacred, intimate bond and of joining your life inextricably and permanently to another in every arena, you invite 200 or so of your closest friends to watch — and then munch on kosher pigs-in-blankets.

Why does the crowd gather? Curiosity? An overweening sense of ownership? Brides and grooms have leveled these accusations, but the truth is that the crowd is vital. It not only bears witness, it also informs and shapes the covenant. Sneaking off to elope in Vegas is not a standard (or even rebellious) Jewish practice, because Jews know — going all the way back to Sinai — that covenant is a communal event as well as a personal choice. Whether it’s a wedding between two Jews or the marriage of God and an entire people, our holiest moments are communal moments. Not a solitary person on a mountaintop or a lone couple in a desert chapel, but an entire people, the whole mishpocha, sharing a connection with a Divine and/or human beloved and with one another.

The world has become very splintered. We separate and segregate: red states vs. blue states, religious vs. secular, us vs. them. The situation is not appreciably better within the Jewish world. Among Klal Yisrael, there is, sadly, a great deal of divisiveness.

The holiday of Shavuot reminds us: Torah means inclusion. Covenant means community. Not just some folks, or the people I agree with, but everyone.

We first received the Torah on Shavuot. But it was not the kind of “receiving” that is passive or complete. It is an active receiving, which demands being available and aware, continually integrating what we receive, and ultimately transmitting it, as well.

God is not the exclusive Giver of Torah. Each of us is called upon to teach it to our children. Torah is our bequest, as well as our inheritance. We invite it to leave its mark on us, and we strive, with all due humility and awe at the task, to leave our mark on it.

How shall we give Torah? Ideally, as God did: inclusively, irrespective of age, position or gender; lovingly, in holy covenant; with unconditional, radical acceptance, in the melee of imperfect community; united, amid the noise and the crowd and all the differences that seem to separate us.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life” (Jewish Lights), is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at


Jewish Covenant

As we approach the new millennium, we often discuss the unity of the Jewish people, seeking those aspects of Jewish life that will hold our diverse communal elements together after the year 2000. Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchek has referred to our Jewish covenant as including our shared history, shared suffering, shared responsibility and shared action.

These components take an added significance and even urgency when we consider Jewish unity in the area of Israel-Diaspora relations. Can Soleveitchek’s model of a shared covenant hold us together as a Jewish people in a period of increasing fragmentation? And how do we build lasting bridges that encourage us to explore our common goals and concerns?

In a small way, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has been at the forefront, asking these questions and pursuing answers. We should never take for granted that what has held us together in the past will do so in the future. Our societies and cultures are different, so we need to create the means to talk together, share together and act together.

It was in the context of shared concern and action that a group of Jewish Angelenos, representing our Jewish communal services, higher education and the public sector, came together this past summer with their counterparts and colleagues in Israel to establish another aspect of our partnership as a concerned Jewish community.

We tend to ignore or deny that we, as Jews, suffer from the woes of the broader society. Yet we are not immune to the stresses of modern society, either here or in Israel. That is why, more than a year ago, this community, through its Jewish Federation and Jewish Community Foundation, began to explore some of the less attractive elements of Israeli society, specifically domestic violence. Let’s face it, the problem of domestic violence has been with us for years. But not until recent years has it been addressed at home or abroad. Yet we all recognize that a battered Jewish spouse or abused Jewish child are part of our shared responsibility wherever the domestic violence might occur. For this reason, we have participated in an analysis of domestic violence in Tel Aviv, our sister city, through the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

Drawn from the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, the USC School of Social Work, the County of Los Angeles, the corporate sector and the Jewish community at large, seven representatives from Los Angeles spent a week in Tel Aviv to understand what we might learn from each other and what we have in common in response to domestic violence. The visit was a reflection of an amazing process now under way — the development of a volunteer committee in Tel Aviv that parallels our efforts at home.

The trip exposed the visitors to the problem of domestic violence and the creative efforts Israel is making to address it. Vivian Sauer of the Jewish Family Service, who was part of the Los Angeles group, said that looking at the faces of women and children who have been victims of domestic violence made it clear that human suffering is the same all over.

The visitors found that Israel has addressed the challenge head on through the creation of state-of-the-art shelters for abused and battered women and children. They were interested to note that the Israeli shelters are often integrated into the community. In Los Angeles, shelters are often far away from our Jewish communities, and, for confidentiality or security reasons, those being assisted are cloistered from ongoing communal life.

The Los Angeles group observed a highly integrated approach to addressing domestic violence. The mutually reinforcing concepts of community and societal pressure have a major impact in Israel on treating domestic violence. In Israel, police officers are being trained as specialists in recognizing the necessary sensitivity to the needs of women who are being abused, a concept now also being used here.

During two days of intensive workshops, the Americans and Israelis exchanged opinions and techniques. They realized that we have something to learn from each other and something to share: things such as creation of a sophisticated public awareness campaign; the creation of a domestic violence council, like we have here; or the need to increase early intervention where child abuse exists.

This small link between our community and Israel is a wonderful example of the future opportunity to share our responsibilities and to solve problems together. We are truly establishing a covenant , Tel Aviv and Los Angeles, with shared action as part of our relationship in a diverse Jewish world.

John R. Fishel is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.