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"I'll Take Jewish Holidays for 500, Alex"

06/02/2022 05:48:54 PM


Rabbi Steven Folberg

Imagine a Jewish person named Charlene. Charlene is a contestant on the classic game show, Jeopardy. Imagine that one of the categories that day is Jewish Religion, and that she decides to go for broke and take "Jewish Holidays for 500."

Alex Trebek (may his memory be a blessing) says, “Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Purim, Yom Hashoah and Shavuot.”

Charlene confidently mashes her buzzer and declares, “What are five Jewish holidays besides Hanukkah, Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?”

Charlene wins on Jeopardy that day, grateful that nobody asked her what Shavuot is actually celebrating.

I can't be tough on Charlene for not knowing what Shavuot commemorates, because frankly, had I not gone to rabbinical school, I'm not sure I would know what it was, either. Although it is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals in the Torah (along with its siblings, Passover and Sukkot) it wasn't a holiday my own family ever celebrated when I was growing up. Maybe that's because Shavuot doesn't have many memorable, home ritual practices like the Passover Seder, or having meals in a sukkah.

So, what exactly is Shavuot?

In the days when our people were farmers and shepherds and the Temple in Jerusalem still stood, Shavuot marked the end of the early, barley harvest, and the harvesting of the first sheaves of the later, crucial wheat crop.

Shavuot, which means "weeks," was celebrated seven weeks and one day (i.e., fifty days) after the second day of Passover. Although we are no longer (most of us, anyway) farmers, this period of time, which we call the counting of the Omer, is still observed by many modern Jews, by reciting a special blessing that declares what day of the Omer it is. We’ve been reciting the blessing on Shabbat all throughout the past seven weeks.

Later on, Shavuot came to celebrate the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai.

So, metaphorically, we leave the slavery of Egypt on Passover, and count the days for seven weeks, like footsteps through the wilderness, until we reach Mount Sinai and receive the Torah.

Much later on, the Kabbalists of the Jewish mystical tradition added practices to the counting of the Omer that were meant to aid in our spiritual refinement as we count through those forty-nine days. We want to be in as elevated a spiritual plane as possible to prepare ourselves, once again, to hear and receive God's moral law on Shavuot.

Shavuot, and the seven-week, day by day counting of the Omer that precedes it, may not get a lot of love from most contemporary Jews, but it has a great deal to say to us.

The progression from the freedom of Passover to the receiving of the Torah and Ten Commandments of Shavuot forges an unbreakable link between freedom and purpose, between liberty and responsibility. Human liberation, as we have learned time and time again in human history, can quickly devolve into a bloody reign of terror. Liberation does not necessarily lead to lasting human goodness and dignity.

The question always is, "What are we to do with our freedom?"

And what limitations on our individual liberty and autonomy must we be prepared to uphold in order to create a just society? How are we to balance personal autonomy and freedom with social responsibility?

Shavuot deserves more attention and more love than most contemporary American Jews bestow upon it. But maybe that starts by recognizing that the dynamics it embodies are as much a matter of life and death in our time as they were in antiquity when this holiday as we now know it began to take shape.

As I write these words, it is the forty-seventh day of the counting of the Omer. Shavuot, the fiftieth day, is this coming Sunday.

I will be conducting our Shavuot morning festival service, which will include the reading of the Ten Commandments from the Torah and, as is customary, a brief, Yizkor memorial service. There will also be lots of lively singing and good cheer.

The service begins at 9 AM in Smith Auditorium. It will also be streamed in real time to our CBI YouTube channel.

Please consider joining me for the service on Sunday morning, especially if you can be there in person! It will be beautiful and uplifting, and your presence would mean a great deal to me and to everyone else who attends.

With love,

Rabbi Steve Folberg

Tue, December 6 2022 12 Kislev 5783