Monday, 26 May 2014

Looking to Shavuot

Shavuot is the holiday where we celebrate Hashem giving us the Torah at Mount Sinai over 3300 years ago. One would surmise that this would make for a remarkable holiday. But it is noted more by its absence of any unique mitzvot than by anything active. There is no matza, no lulav, no frantic cleaning beforehand and no building of a sukah. Although we do have is a series of customs that have developed over the years, Shavuot is unfortunately the forgotten holiday.

Most people, when asked about Shavuot, will give one of three answers. Dairy food, staying up late, or 'did I miss that holiday?' Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a very thought provoking article recently where he touched upon Jewish continuity and identity.

“Throughout a century of reflection on how to sustain Jewish identity in an open, secular society, the case has often been made that we need to make Judaism easier. Why make the barriers so high, the demands so steep, the laws so rigorous and demanding? So, one by one, the demands were lowered. Shabbat, kashrut and conversion were all made easier. As for the laws of taharat ha-mishpacha (family purity), in many circles outside Orthodoxy they fell into abeyance altogether. The assumption was that the less demanding Judaism is to keep, the more Jews will stay Jewish.

To show that this is a fallacy, I once asked a mixed group of observant and non-observant Jews to list the festivals in order of difficulty. Everyone agreed that Pesach was the hardest, Shavuot the easiest, and Sukkot somewhere in between. I then asked, which festivals are kept by the greatest number of Jews. Again, everyone agreed: Pesach was kept by most, Shavuot by the least, with Sukkot in between. There was a pause as the group slowly realized what it had just said. It was counterintuitive but undeniable: the harder a festival is, the more people will keep it. The proof is Yom Kippur, by far the most demanding day of all, and by far the best attended in synagogue.”

In essence Rabbi Sacks was saying in order for us to foster the next generation of Jews who are engaged in Judaism we should not be lowering the standards at all! All that does is dilute things and cause more apathy. Rather we should be looking for ways to teach, explain and inspire about the depth of Judaism.

On Shavuot we read the book of Ruth which tells the story of Ruth a non-Jew accepting the God of the Jews as her God and the Jewish people as her own. She says the famous words “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

Ruth is the quintessential convert to Judaism and her inspiring words are the basis for the intricate halakhot of conversion that a person must totally accept the yoke of heaven. She is an inspiration to aspiring Jews and Jewish-born people alike. She embodies the lesson that Judaism isn’t a series of half measures and quaint customs but something, rather it is part of our very essence and being.

There are several reasons why we read the book of Ruth on Shavuot – both Shavuot and the book of Ruth take place in the harvest time, King David who is the great grandson of Ruth died on Shavuot. But I think there is a much more powerful reason and that is on Shavuot we affirm and commit ourselves to the Torah, an act which our ancestors did 3300 years ago at Mount Sinai. Ruth, as the righteous convert, totally accepts the Torah too, showing us, whether we are born to Judaism or we choose Judaism it is something that we must strive to do wholeheartedly.

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