September 17, 2019

Shavuot: A Link to God

"Why is the festival of Shavuot called ‘The time of the giving of our Torah’ and not the time of the receiving of our Torah? Because the giving of the Torah happened at one specified time, but the receiving of the Torah happens at every time and in every generation. — Rabbi Meir Alter of Ger

"Each generation must make its own way back to Sinai, must stand under the mountain and re-appropriate and re-interpret the revelation, in terms that are both classical and new. We recognize change as part of the continuing process of tradition itself." — Rabbi Gerson Cohen

The least-known of the Shalosh Regalim (the three pilgrimage festivals) is Shavuot, the two-day Festival of Weeks. A victim of schedule,Shavuot

comes just before the beginning of summer — unable to fit into the vacation schedule of most contemporaries and lacking any special rituals to excite widespread observance.

In the biblical period, Shavuot celebrated the conclusion of the barley harvest and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Jews from all over Eretz Yisrael would bring their bikkurim (first-fruits or new grains) to the Temple in Jerusalem, where the priests would bake them into shtei ha-lehem (two loaves of bread), which they would offer on the altar, after which the people could eat their new grain. The two days were, consequently, feast days for the entire people.

By the time of the Mishnah and the Talmud, some thousand years later, the rabbis declared Shavuot as the judgment day for fruit trees, just as Rosh Hashanah is for humanity, thereby building on the centrality of the harvest. Additionally, Shavuot expanded beyond its agricultural origin to incorporate a historical event as well. Since the festival comes exactly seven weeks (hence its name) after the second day of Pesach, which marks the liberation of the Jewish slaves from Egypt and their wandering toward Mount Sinai, the rabbis saw Shavuot as celebrating z’man mattan Torateinu, (the season of the giving of our Torah) token and record of the special love between God and the Jewish people.

That link between Pesach and Shavuot, based on the Torah’s insistence that Shavuot occurs precisely 50 days after Pesach, follows a logic of human liberation, as well as the cycles of the calendar.

Pesach, however popular, is just a beginning: the initiation of Jewish freedom. As our ancestors were liberated from Egyptian slavery, they took their first halting steps toward freedom and independence.

No longer saddled with the burdens and oppression of Egyptian taskmasters, the Jews entered the wilderness of Sinai, experiencing their independence as little less than anarchy. Theirs was a freedom from control, a freedom from limits. Such liberty, by itself, is the freedom of adolescents, one which bridles at restraint.

Such a freedom is fine as a first step, but it ultimately cannot insure human growth, creativity and community. Rather than simply avoiding limits, mature freedom entails living up to one’s best potential, meeting responsibilities with a sense of purpose and satisfaction. Freedom fulfilled is freedom to live productively and with meaning.Just as "freedom from" finds completion in "freedom to," so the festival of Pesach initiates a process of liberation that culminates in the festival of Shavuot. The second of the three pilgrimage festivals of the Torah, Shavuot marks the coming of age and responsibility of the Jewish people, celebrating the encounter between God and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.

That moment of Divine-human commitment resulted in a formal link between the two, a brit (covenant) that bound God and the Jewish people forever. That brit received its first expression in the writings of the Torah, which has formed the core of all subsequent Jewish identity.

Shavuot, then, marks the special relationship between God and the Jews, celebrates the biblical understanding of the Jews as God’s Chosen People — a concept essential to Jewish identity, and one which has been distorted both by Jews and by non-Jews.

What does it mean to be chosen? Chosen does not mean superior, and it does not mean that God loves the Jewish people better than other people. The Bible itself records God’s love for all humanity. Being chosen does, however, imply that God loved the Jewish people first. That love is a matter of historical record: Judaism gave birth to the two monotheistic faiths, Christianity and Islam, which have spread a commitment to biblical values and knowledge through much of the world.

"To be chosen" is really a grammatical fragment. A person is never simply chosen but always chosen for something. When we say that the Jews are chosen, we mean that the Jews were selected to embody the practices and values of Judaism as expressed in the Torah and subsequent Jewish writings.

God chose us to be a role model — to demonstrate that a society of people dedicated to ritual profundity, moral rigor and compassionate action could profoundly shape the world. Jews are chosen to live Torah, nothing more and nothing less.

In the words of the siddur, "You have chosen us from among all peoples by giving us Your Torah." To the extent that we make the practices and values of the Torah real in our daily lives and in our communal priorities, we, in turn, choose God. The Torah is given anew each time we allow it to live through our deeds.

Shavuot, then, is a recommitment to our founding purpose. Each year, we remember why there is a Jewish people, why there is Judaism. On this festival, we celebrate, as did our ancestors, in wonder, the fact that God chose our people to live the mitzvot, and we renew our commitment to walk in God’s ways.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism and the author of “The Bedside Torah: Dreams, Visions & Wisdom,” (McGraw Hill).