December 11, 2019

Unity Holiday

Shavuot, one of the trio of Jewish pilgrimage festivals that includes Passover and Sukkot, tends to get short shrift from most American Jews. Coming mere weeks after the Passover seders, perhaps the first-fruits festival simply finds many folks holidayed out. Or maybe it’s because Shavuot lacks any unusual mitzvah-food of its own like matzah or ritual practice like building a sukkah. Whatever the reason, Judaism’s summer-season holiday has come to be neglected by much of the American Jewish community.

Yet a convincing argument could be made that no other Jewish festival is more timely or urgent for unity-challenged American Jewry.

That’s because Jewish tradition associates the day of Shavuot (two days, actually, at least for those of us who don’t live in Israel) with the Jews’ acceptance of the Torah, the seminal event of Jewish peoplehood and unity. Shavuot, the Talmud and Jewish liturgy teach, marks the anniversary of the day our ancestors stood at Mount Sinai, in the Talmud’s poignant words, “like one person, with one heart.”

What unified our people at that time, Jewish sources make clear, was our forebears’ unanimous stance vis-à-vis the essential Jewish mandate, the laws of the Torah — a stance embodied in their immortal words: “Na’aseh v’nishma” (We will do and we will hear). That phrase captures the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of God’s will even amid a lack of hearing or understanding. “We will do Your will,” they pledged in effect, “even if it is not our will, even if we are able to ‘hear’ it, even if it discomfits us.”

Could anything be more antithetical to the American mindset? More diametric to the “What’s in it for me?” mentality that we Americans, including American Jews, take in with every breath?

Ours, after all, is a comfort-crazed society, fixated on having things and having them our way, not only in the physical trappings of our lives, but in our spiritual choices. How common it is these days to hear worshipers, including Jewish ones, explaining their degree of observance, their choice of place of worship, even their religious affiliations, as born of something akin to coziness.

“I embrace this observance because it makes me feel good.”

“I so enjoy the services there.”

“That liturgy makes me feel involved, important.”

“I’m most comfortable — happy, content, fulfilled — as a (fill in the blank).”

But Judaism has never been about comfort, enjoyment or even personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter surely emerges from a God-centered life). It has been, rather, about listening to God, not only when God’s commands sit well with us but even — indeed, especially — when they don’t. Jews, after all, have died — proudly and uncomfortably — for their faith.

Thus, Shavuot really deserves to be a front-and-center holiday for American Jews. Its central theme speaks to us, loudly, clearly and directly. The Jewish summer festival reminds us about the engine of true Jewish unity, that unity lies in the realization that Judaism is not about what we’d like God to do for us, but rather about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do for God.