28 May 2020
A reflection from Avi West, Master Teacher, Federation’s Department of Jewish Leadership & Learning
Back in ancient times, Shavuot was an important, yet straightforward, agricultural holiday. To celebrate, an Israelite would make a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem and make two offerings: first, a grain offering to commemorate Chag HaKatzir (festival of the harvests); and second, a fruit tithing from their personal farm for Chag HaBikurim (festival of the first fruits).
But in 70 C.E., the Temple was destroyed and the original set of rituals proscribed for Shavuot were impossible to observe in their traditional way. What were the ancient Jews to do?
The situation for Jews in the 1st century C.E. was not so dissimilar to what Jews today are experiencing. To be sure, the destruction of the Temple and a global pandemic are two very different sets of circumstances with very different short- and long-term implications. But, since canceling Shavuot is unimaginable, both situations forced the Jewish community to find different ways of celebrating.
With the Temple gone, the sages recast Shavuot as zman matan torateinu, the time we received the Torah. While Shavuot has retained its agricultural roots, the Torah became a new focal point for the holiday.
So, what are we to make of this year’s situation? A pilgrimage festival when travel is limited, a harvest festival while the food chain is threatened, a time to rejoice in community stifled by social distancing, and a remembrance of revelation in the midst of isolation. How may we best show our appreciation for the gift of Torah when access to the ark is blocked?
Just as our Jewish ancestors were quite resourceful at adapting Jewish custom and tradition to accommodate for changing circumstances, so too has our community demonstrated creativity during this pandemic.
Students have been home schooling and congregants have been home shul-ing (participating in synagogue services). Attendance at virtual adult learning and cultural events have been breaking records. People have rallied around food banks, tithing and gleaning from their own pantries, and shopping trips to help feed others. Death did not take a vacation, and the art and science of a Zoom shiva (period of mourning) brought true support to mourners.
Yet, within all this innovation, how do we make sure that we’re not changing too much? What constitutes a natural adaptation, and what strays too far from the original intention of the holiday? As we make so many changes, I can hear a faint question by Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof: “What about TRADITION?” As we prepare to commemorate our ancestors’ acceptance of the divine gift of Torah, would the Gifter (God) look at us and say, “What have you done with My gift?”
There’s a midrash (commentary of a Jewish text often in the form of a story) that vividly illustrates this theme. A king gifted each of his two beloved servants a measure of wheat and a measure of flax. The wise servant wove the flax into a beautiful cloth and ground the wheat into flour to bake bread. He placed the bread on a tablecloth made from the flax. The less wise of the two did nothing with what he was given. When the king returned and asked to see the gifts he had given the two servants, he was naturally more pleased by the servant who had transformed his gift into something both beautiful and useful.
As Arthur Waskow points out in Seasons of Our Joy, “Just as the ancient Shavuot meant that human beings took God’s grain and shaped it into bread to offer up to God, so Shavuot since the Temple fell has meant that human beings took God’s Torah, shaped it into midrash and, as it were, offered the Torah back to God. Our own identity, grown tall, is able to join in partnership with God.”
That partnership, or brit (covenant), as explained by David Hartman in A Living Covenant, is a balance of human empowerment and radical humility. His son, Donniel, continues to unpack this idea in Putting God Second, where he states that the rabbis “[see] the word of God as the beginning of a vigorous dialogue with humanity meant to last the span of history. The covenantal system shapes the initial terms of humanity’s relationship with God, while creating a space for God’s human partners to stand before the divine in their infinite personhood and claim broad authority to shape the conditions of the relationship as it evolves through lived experience over time.”
Perhaps this year’s commemoration of that moment of “face time” with God at Sinai can be celebrated through our FaceTime screens made holy through their use as portals into Torah and virtual community. We don’t have to see this as a precedent-making change—more like a chapter of the vigorous dialogue on the covenant, one we can turn back to after Shavuot 2020 to remind ourselves that, sometimes, in order to maintain a tradition, we have to be willing to change it.