This Saturday night and Sunday, Jews around the world will stand at the foot of Mount Sinai together, listening. It is the holyday of Shavuot. Exactly seven weeks from the second night of Pesach, we celebrate the collective and communal experience of revelation and the giving of the Torah.
This is a unique feature of our Jewish story. Most religious traditions have prophets – individuals who have either unique gifts of spiritual attunement and devotion that enable them to communicate with the Divine, or individuals who are selected for the unique role (whether they like it or not) of being a messenger of the Divine, guiding and instructing the rest of the people, on God’s behalf. But in our Jewish narrative, we tell of this revelatory experience – this direct encounter with Divine presence and instruction – shared by the entire community. We have individual prophets in our ancient sources but Judaism’s most important prophetic moment, and the only one that is celebrated and embodied as a living, still-unfolding reality every year, is a community-wide flash-mob type of experience that includes every adult, child and elder. One Midrash even imagines that fetuses in-utero were able to see through the wombs they were in to behold and hear revelation at Sinai!
I’m not particularly interested in historical questions of what factually did or did not happen at Sinai, but I am deeply compelled by this image that we are invited to orient ourselves toward – an annual moment of the entire Jewish community listening together.
What would we need to do in order to set aside expectations, assumptions, tightly held beliefs, fears and agendas, to come together and to listen – deeply, openly, patiently?
What might we hear if we attune our ears and our hearts to the call of what is collectively asked of us, needed of us, at this moment in time? What might we hear from the still small voice of our essential, sacred nature? From the song and cry of humanity and of the planet? What call might we hear reverberating from the farthest star to the soft exhale of our own breath?
Receiving Torah on Shavuot is not merely about receiving dictation of a list of laws but this listening together to discern the uniting, ennobling, wise and responsive path to live in response that call.
Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzovsky, the Slonimer Rebbe (1911-2000), brings this practice into all of life. He writes –
“Whatever transpires during the course of our lives, whatever we see or hear, everything is the voice of God speaking to us. This is what we learn from these verses that precede the giving of the Torah: “Now then, if you will listen to My voice.” This is one of the first conditions that must be present if we are to fully inhabit our Jewish lives, particularly in our inner experience. We must always be listening to hear God’s voice speaking to us.”
You may have other names for the subtle and clear Presence that is felt and the truths that are known from listening in this way, but Shavuot calls us into the listening that is accessible and available to all of us. You don’t need to be a prophet or a “believer”. Because it is framed as a collective experience, it is the entire community who are empowered and tasked with forging a shared practice of listening and then continually refining the practices and pathways of responding to what we hear. I wonder what we will hear this year!
Please join me, along with the Downtown Jewish community, for a night of learning and listening, celebrating Shavuot. Saturday June 4th at the Miles Nadal JCC for Tikkun Leil Shavuot. I will be teaching on the topic of How We Return – Sharing Loss and Offering Comfort. Click here for more details and to register. Chag same’ach!