Why Shavuot is Both an Exciting and Challenging Holiday

While originally an agricultural holiday commemorating the first fruits of grain and other produce brought by ancient Jewish farmers to the Temple in Jerusalem, following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Shavuot was reimagined by the rabbis as a holiday celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. (This year, Shavuot starts Saturday night ,May 23 and ends the evening of Monday, May 25.) Now the rather amazing and radical thing is that Shavuot is not merely understood as a commemorative holiday, a chance to say “Oh, how great it was that we received the Torah 3000 years ago.”

It is partly commemorative, but it is also forward looking. As the Slonimer Rebbe writes: “every year this holy holiday is again, right now, the time of giving torah, not just in the past” (Netivot Shalom, Shavuot). You might think that since the Slonimer Rebbe was an ultra-orthodox Hassidic rebbe, he would just be interested in celebrating the Torah of the past, what was already given, and not budging an inch from it. Or maybe he would say that new torah is only something for learned rabbis to tune in to.  But no, he’s saying that the central meaning of the holiday is the torah that is coming through right now that we all need to access. (As a clarification: in this teaching I use “Torah” to refer to the written Torah text, and “torah” to refer to ongoing revealed wisdom, accessible to those who tune in.)

This puts out a challenge to us to become receivers of new torah. Living in the Northeast a few years back, I remember seeing a number of signs on United Church of Christ churches with the tagline, “God is still speaking.” That’s the idea of Shavuot- tuning in to that voice that our tradition says emerges from Mt. Sinai every day (Pirkei Avot 6:2). Our challenge is to turn down the static enough so that we can receive some kind of broadcast.

I find this teaching both empowering and daunting.

How would we do this? We obviously need some quiet reflective space to attune to the energy of this season (zman!). During the High Holyday season in the fall, many of us may make a quiet and reflective move to tune in for insight into our own personal evolution. During the late spring holiday of Shavuot, we do something similar, and yet different. 

But Torah by its nature is collective; it’s something we need to share with others. So in tuning in for new torah during Shavuot, for hearing something of that voice that is still speaking, one guidepost is that we are looking for wisdom and information that takes us toward the collective, that is relevant to others beyond our personal evolution and growth.

Another guidepost for what kind of torah we should be listening for comes from Reb Nachman. He suggests that the new torah to come through for us now will be a torah of hesed, of loving-kindness (Likkutei Moharan 13). While the tradition says that the Torah we originally received at Mount Sinai was a Torah of law and judgment (gevurah, the dynamic opposite of hesed), Reb Nachman encourages us to open ourselves and listen for a torah of hesed/ loving-kindness instead. 

So at this season of Shavuot, may we attempt to tune in, as best we can, to the torah of the future that is coming through for us. Even if nothing seems to be coming, it’s still inspiring to know that our tradition is pushing us to be on the lookout for it.  It’s important to remember: if you don’t ask...you’ll never get an answer!

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If you’d like some spiritual practice-oriented support on attuning and quieting the static, please be in touch with me at rabbi.josh18@gmail.com or 508-494-1631.

I offer ongoing gratitude to my teacher Rabbi Miles Krassen (www.planetaryjudaism.org) for his inspiration for many of the ideas in this teaching.