February 23, 2020

Shavuot: Healing the Wounds of Rejection

Photo from Pexels.

On June 9 and 10, we celebrate Shavuot and receiving Torah. But it was not always so. 

Torah relays the unfolding of creation and the Jewish people, who enter into a Covenant with God and then journey to the Promised Land. It was an arduous journey by a people struggling with post-traumatic stress, fears, insecurities and ambivalence. More than once, they petulantly threatened to return to Egypt, rhapsodic in their fantasies of the comfort they once had in Egypt. Moses, the supportive leader, nudged them on, along with God’s miracles, ensuring food, water and occasional punishments to encourage faith and tenacity. The desert became an alchemic process where the people had to mature spiritually.

After crossing the Sea of Reeds, their first stop is Mount Sinai, to personally meet HaShem and receive the Ten Commandments and Torah. After three days of preparation, they “Saw thunder and the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain; the people saw and trembled … they said to Moses, ‘You speak to us and we shall hear, let God not speak to us lest we die.’ ” So Moses went to the top of the mountain, on their behalf, to receive the tablets and Torah, returning 40 days later to find a raucous celebration of a molten golden calf. In his rage, Moses smashed the tablets, incredulous that after receiving the gift of freedom and entering into the Covenant, the people expressed the ultimate rejection of HaShem, to not only refuse to listen to God’s voice but to replace God with an idol. In fact, Moses received a second set of tablets and the rabbis teach that he returned on Yom Kippur, highlighting the theme of forgiveness central to this Holy Day. So how is it we celebrate with such a stain in our past?

Originally Shavuot was a celebration of the first grain harvest, Chag HaKatzir, and the offering of first fruits, Yom HaBikurim. Then we’re instructed to rejoice after counting seven weeks from Passover. Shavuot means weeks. We were told to bring sacrificial offerings and have a day of rest, a holy convocation for God, expressing gratitude and joy.

The rabbis, in their genius, found a way to heal the wounds of rejection and redeem the sin of the people.

When the Holy Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. and the people were dispersed, the rabbis saw an opportunity to reshape an agricultural and sacrificial religion into one focused on study, prayer and mitzvot. The Torah became the center of Jewish life, so celebrating its gift of God’s words and teachings, as a treasure, became an essential feature of this holiday. What better way than to align Shavuot with Passover, the liberation from slavery, with the goal of receiving laws and statutes that would create a container for our newfound freedom and a relationship with the Holy One?

The rabbis, in their genius, found a way to heal the wounds of rejection and redeem the sin of the people. By celebrating receiving the Torah, each year we reframe history, turning what once was a blemish on the people into a reaffirmation of loyalty and partnership. As a metaphor for a wedding, Shavuot creates a re-commitment ceremony with God (the groom), and the people Israel (the bride) and Torah binding their relationship.

On Shavuot, we also read the Book of Ruth, a woman who voluntarily follows the laws and the God of her mother-in-law after her husband has died, even though she is a non-Jew. In her zealous behavior, we are reminded of “choosing,” once again, our own treasured tradition. Ruth, considered the first convert, is rewarded for her righteousness by becoming the great-grandmother of King David, who is believed to have died on Shavuot. 

It is also the custom to study all night from the Prophet Ezekiel as well as passages from Torah, reinforcing its place in our hearts. Some communities pass the Torah to each person so they can have a personal moment of recommitment, while others unroll the whole Torah, holding it up, to witness every glorious letter.

As someone who sees Judaism through the lens of healing and nurturing spiritual wholeness, I believe we learn there is a great psycho-spiritual healing in reframing difficult and traumatic events so they can be revisited, honored and even celebrated.

Eva Robbins is a rabbi, cantor, artist and the author of “Spiritual Surgery, Journey of Healing Mind, Body and Spirit.”