January 18, 2019

Shavuot, revisited: Five thoughts

This week, Jewish communities around the world celebrate Shavuot. Compared with Sukkot and Passover, the two other pilgrimage holidays, Shavuot is not nearly as well known, let alone observed. While rabbinic in its origin, the one-day festival commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Here are five insights derived from Shavuot to better acquaint you with this important day.

First:  We Jews are the People of the Book. Can you think of another group of people who kiss their religious texts after dropping them? When the Torah’s paraded around, everyone stands and frequently kiss it as it’s brought near. If it’s dropped, they fast, or give tzedakah as a form of expiation. Within many synagogue prayer books, and bound copies of the Torah, you’ll commonly find lipstick remains on meaningful pages of these holy texts. 

My advice is not to worship the Torah, but to live by it. Spare your kisses for your family and friends. Don’t pray to the Torah; pray to God — its author. Shavuot is a good time to start.

Second: Shavuot teaches us to “number our days.”  We count seven weeks (49 days), plus one, from the second night of Passover to Shavuot. Each day is measured.  Psalm 90 instructs us to “number our days wisely, so that we may acquire a heart of wisdom.” 

Shavuot teaches us to make every day count. That we are conscious of our mortality makes life more precious. With Torah — celebrated and received at Mount Sinai on Shavuot — we are given the tools to better navigate through life. With Torah, we can more fully understand the ultimate purpose behind our existence.

Third: Shavuot is a complement to Passover. You can’t have one without the other.  Physical liberation, as it’s celebrated on Passover, is a necessary first step. But what do you do after you’re physically free? On Shavuot, we’re given spiritual freedom, intellectual liberation. Life needs structure, not enslavement. The most creative human beings rarely depend on spontaneity. They adhere to a discipline. On Shavuot, we receive the Torah with the hopes it can teach us how to live more meaningful, disciplined lives within the bounds of physical freedom.

Fourth: Shavuot is a joyous time. That the seven-week period between Passover and Shavuot, referred to as the counting of the omer, has become associated with a quasi-mournful time in the Jewish calendar is a pity.  

Popularly linked to the second-century rabbinic leader, Akiba ben Joseph, whose 24,000 students were either killed fighting alongside Bar Kochba against Rome; killed as the result of a plague; or treated each other so poorly, they became irrelevant and died out.  

That observant Jews customarily refrain from listening to music, cutting their hair or getting married during the time leading up to Shavuot (with the exception of Lag b’Omer), reflects a dour mindset filled with martyrdom and needless restriction.

Each day, if not each week, between Passover and Shavuot should be cause for boundless celebration and anticipation. We should be chanting Hallel during the daily morning service. Like Passover and Sukkot, Shavuot is a holiday filled with great festivity. The days leading up to it should be, as well.

Fifth: The gates of Judaism are wide open to non-Jews; Jews by choice are welcomed, deeply appreciated and admired.

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth. Ruth was a Moabite woman who converted to Judaism. The Moabites were described in the Bible as longtime enemies of the Jewish People — that’s not insignificant.

The point being, whoever is sincere in wanting to become Jewish, regardless of one’s background, gender, race, ethnicity, etc., is welcome. Jews by choice are among the Jewish people’s greatest gifts. They bring fresh insight into our traditions.  They have a love for God, Torah and Israel.  

A great American sociologist, the late Egon Mayer, predicated by the year 2020, more than 10 percent of the American-Jewish community will be composed of Jews by choice.  I’d love that number to increase to over 50 percent. So exceptionally valued are Jews by choice, so important are they to the vitality and depth of Judaism.

Shavuot’s religious significance is on par with Passover and Sukkot. The holiday is filled with insight and meaning, far more than just five. Many more await you when you engage in Shavuot’s observance. Take it seriously. You won’t regret that you did. 

RABBI MICHAEL GOTTLEIB is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav, a Conservative congregation in Santa Monica.