Of the three pilgrimage festivals – Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot – Shavuot, celebrating receiving Torah at Mount Sinai and celebrating the harvest of first fruits, seems to get the short end of the celebratory stick. Pesach is perhaps the most celebrated Jewish holyday (with Chanukah a ready rival, the shorter cousin trying to keep up with Christmas). The central theme of journeying from slavery to liberation is one that people of all beliefs and backgrounds can reflect on, discuss and discover within it both political and spiritual connection and contemporary relevance. And it is beloved as a celebration that is carried out at home rather than in the synagogue, a gathering of family and friends with food at its centre.
Sukkot, though less popular, fills the senses and has fabulous accessories – 4 species of plants to shake, an abundant harvest, a fragrant hut to dwell in, and the real and mystical guests we welcome to join us. Linked to the experience of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, Sukkot resonates with existential and sociological themes of vulnerability and protection, homelessness and shelter. The sukkah is also alive with romantic and erotic reverberations as the sukkah is aligned with images of the chuppah. These themes, like those of Pesach, have deep and direct significance in contemporary life.
Poor, neglected Shavuot coming at the end of the school year, is often given short shrift in Hebrew school. Of course that means that many adults are also not very familiar with Shavuot. It has few customs – some special prayers and Torah reading (including the Book of Ruth) in the shul service, eating diary (not the best custom for lactose intolerant Ashkenazim) and staying up all night engaging in Jewish learning. As a festival that is tied to the Israelites’ communal, collective experience of unmasked Divine revelation and receiving Torah, Shavuot is not a festival with universalistic implications. Its themes, questions and experiences are decidedly particularlistic, exploring what it means to affirm being part of the brit, the covenant of the Jewish people and claiming a living connection to Torah, with the narratives, practices, values and purpose that shape and animate Jewish life. It asks, too, how do we listen for the unfolding Divine voice in the world in every moment? For many of us, this is not an easy experience to access or one that would even occur to us to search for.
This past weekend, a group of DJC members and I joined our Shoresh friends (the wonderful Jewish environmental organization) at Bela Farm for a program to prepare us for Shavuot. We spent Sunday morning helping to plant a pollinator forest and then in the afternoon, we ‘hiked up Mount Sinai’ with stops for learning under the wide blue sky.
We explored Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7 a rabbinic teaching that asserts – “Whoever does not make oneself hefker/ownerless like the wilderness is not able to acquire wisdom and Torah. Therefore Torah was given in the wilderness.”
We let this text reverberate in us as we walked in silence, pausing at the lowest point of the valley to lay in the grass, listen to the birds, watch the tall grass waving across the hillside. We continued up to the highest point, looking out over the valley and the rolling hills across from us, looking up into the clouds and feeling the wind strong against our faces.
Although it wasn’t a wilderness, the expansiveness of the landscape and all the sounds around us enabled each of us to grow quiet, to empty out distraction and self-absorption and to touch what it might mean to become ownerless like a desert. We started to hear differently. We felt ourselves becoming both more present and less self-possessed, more available, receptive and open. It was as if the text was mapping itself onto our skin and into our hearts.
It is hard to access the meaning of a text like this sitting inside or just engaging the intellect. Making ourselves available to acquiring wisdom and Torah in our contemporary lives takes creativity and not only thinking outside the box but being open to experiences that transcend the boxes into which we put ourselves and our ideas of Torah.
I hope you will meet me at Mount Sinai this year for the All-Night Shavuot Learning at the Miles Nadal JCC on Saturday night June 8th (though you don’t have to stay all night). I’ll be teaching from 1-2 AM. I invite any DJCers who attend to have coffee and cheesecake with me!
See you in the wilderness.