Giving Shavuot a Public Relations Makeover

The significance of Matan Torah is difficult to grasp in the modern day. Celebrating that ongoing relationship with God makes it accessible.

Shavuot celebrations at Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, May 13, 2013.
Shavuot celebrations at Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, May 13, 2013.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In America, if you try to go to your employer and explain that, as an observant Jew, in addition to Passover, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur you also need two days off in late spring for the Festival of Weeks, the Pentecost, the Season of the First Fruits, Shavuot, he or she will likely either look at you quizzically or send you to the human resources office with your walking papers.

People who attend adult education classes or family programming often wonder why more people don’t celebrate or know about Shavuot, like they do Passover or Hanukkah. My half-joking response: bad PR. It isn’t the message, the mission of the holiday but the way it has been framed for the Jewish people. Perhaps it is not surprising given there is no explanation in the Torah as to the meaning or historical significance of Shavuot, nor how it is to be observed ritually. This leaves us wondering about its importance.

There is nothing we really have-to do on Shavuot. There is nothing we have-to eat. Dairy food is a custom but not a prescribed ritual like the lulav and etrog. The Torah simply commands us to count fifty days from Passover (the exact start day is unclear) and offer a special sacrifice of two loaves of bread. In fact, in the Torah itself the holiday has nothing to do with what most of us know it as today – the commemoration of the giving of the Torah. That was a concept designed by the rabbis with some very fanciful rabbinic mathematics.

The rabbis calculate the theophany of Sinai as coinciding with the sixth day of the third month, transforming Shavuot from a holiday wholly rooted in the world of nature into the commemoration of a historical event and the most abstract and cerebral of our holidays: “Zman matan Torateinu”, the holiday of Giving the Torah. Today, for most modern day Jews, this is no more compelling than a wholly agricultural festival about the first fruits. But we are left with the question, “What does it mean to receive Torah for the modern day person, and how might we give this holiday a bit of a public relations makeover?”

We turn ask what Matan Torah is in the modern world. What does it mean to give and receive Torah? Is it simply a static moment in time when the law was revealed - when a single document was given and received at a single time and single place? That is how it has been described for generations, but maybe there is a much more powerful teaching to be told for the today’s Jewish community.

Rabbi Rachel Sabbath-Halachmi has suggested we frame it with the language kiyum ha’brit. That by celebrating this holiday we are upholding the covenant, our commitment to the Jewish people, to engagement with Jewish texts and a direct link with God. It is about the way we live our lives, not simply a historical commemoration. By celebrating this holiday we are making a statement that we are committed to the Jewish community and our covenant with God.

In fact, one of the very few customs associated with Shavuot fits in with this reading of the holiday. The Tikkun Leil Shavuot, staying up all night in communal Torah study enacts this kiyum brit out in a very real, tangible way. Sitting across a table from a fellow member of the covenant and engaging in debate, dialogue and discussion over a Jewish wisdom text, a piece of Torah literally reenacting the historical narrative with a present day experience – emotionally, intellectually and spiritually receiving Torah both as individual and in community. We connect with our truest selves, we create bonds with other Jews and with God, thus truly creating a living revelation.

Rabbi Eugene Borowitz wrote, “Shavuot is about celebrating a covenantal relationship with God established at that moment of Sinai but Shavuot is about celebrating not just the written or oral tradition but that living discipline which flows from a consciousness of standing in direct personal relationship with God.”

In understanding Shavuot this way we create a living, breathing revelation – not a static moment in time. The holiday comes to symbolize a revelation that is ongoing, comprised not with God alone, but with a community of people engaged in the process of a living Torah - a living Judaism. In this conception, Matan Torah is accessible not as a simply historical memory, but in real time, in our lives today, in our communities, hearts, minds and souls now. It is a Torah of engagement and connection. It requires simply that we are active participants in the relationship with Jewish wisdom, God and Jewish people. No matter your denomination, whether you are steadfast doubter or firm believer, the engagement is richer this way, breathing life across the generations from an ancient story, renewed by a modern day revelation to live a vibrant and connected Judaism.

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