Finding the Divine in Community on Shavuot
Blog article by Fellow Rabbi Edward Bernstein
By GreenFaith Fellow Rabbi Edward Bernstein
In reflecting on my blog's theme of Judaism and the environment and my efforts to relate this theme to the Jewish calendar, the upcoming festival of Shavuot (beginning after sundown on June 7 through June 9) bears lots of fruit, literally and figuratively. It would be easy for me to comment on Shavuot as "Hag HaBikkurim," the festival of the first fruits. As if this agricultural reference weren't enough, we read the Book of Ruth with its rich agricultural imagery of the barley harvest and the loving kindness that Ruth shows Naomi by gleaning in the fields for her mother-in-law and the loving kindness of Boaz in inviting Ruth to glean in his fields. In modern Israel, Shavuot became one of the most popular holidays, particularly on secular kibbutzim, precisely because of its rich agricultural heritage that had been lost over a 2,000-year period.
It would be easy for me to elaborate on Shavuot as a season to be mindful of the earth and its produce and propose many pragmatic eco-friendly suggestions that reflect this spirit. Yet, Shavuot is a multi-dimensional holiday, and I would not do it justice if I ignored another key element. The rabbinic tradition attaches a layer of significance to Shavuot as z'man matan torateinu, the season of the giving of our Torah. The rabbis understand this historic dimension of Shavuot as connecting it inextricably to the Exodus. While the Exodus represents the achievement of physical freedom, the association of Shavuot with the revelation at Sinai makes it a holiday affirming our spiritual freedom by virtue of the laws received at Sinai.
According to the rabbinic tradition, the calendar is structured to emphasize the connection between physical and spiritual freedom. They bridge the two holidays with the ritual of the 49-day counting of the omer as described in Leviticus 23. According to the plain sense of the text, the counting begins after the first Sabbath after Passover (what would be the first Sunday of Passover's intermediate days). As the omer ritual was associated with offerings of a sheaf of barley (another agricultural connection!) one might think that this ritual is long forgotten in the post-Temple era. In rabbinic interpretation, however, the counting begins after the first day of Passover (understood in this context as a special Sabbath). Furthermore, the ritual of counting (even without the grain offerings) continues to this day as it draws our attention to the seven full weeks between Passover and Shavuot. It demarcates day by day a sense of anticipation for the completion of -- indeed the very purpose of -- the Exodus.
When we examine the text of Exodus 19-20 we find the description of the revelation and the Decalogue, and this text is read in synagogue on Shavuot (first day, outside of Israel). The text describes the people coming together as a community to enter into a covenantal relationship with God. Even with the text, their precise experience is open to discussion. Based on different ways of reading Exodus 19:25-20:1, God either spoke directly to the entire people or Moses acted as an intermediary and spoke in the name of God. According to Professor Benjamin Sommer of the Jewish Theological Seminary and author of the widely acclaimed book "The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel," the ambiguity of Exodus 19-20 is precisely the point of the text. The biblical author (whether we believe it's Divine or human) adds a layer of mystery to the formative moment of the Israelite people. What the text is clear about, though, is that the people were together. At a critical moment, a nation comes together and experiences the Divine in a mysterious yet transformative way that binds them to a covenant. In contemporary society, I believe that this essential message of Exodus -- experiencing God in the context of community -- is of great relevance, particularly as increasing numbers of people seek to bring healing to our broken planet.
Environmental activists, whether or not they are religious, recognize the importance of the power of community. Colin Beavan, otherwise known as the "No Impact Man," recorded on his blog, in his book and in a documentary film his experience with his family in living "off the grid" in New York City for a year. During much of this year they abstained from driving or public transportation, use of electrical appliances and purchasing processed food and consumer products. They washed their laundry in the bathtub, took stairs instead of the elevator, avoided plastic and grew vegetables in a community garden. Beavan draws from his experience lessons in differentiating between wants and needs in our society and calls on his audience to take action to fight the worldwide environmental crisis. However, when asked by college students and others about the most important thing people can do to help save the planet, Beavan does not prescribe his own no-impact plans. Rather, he says that the single most important thing that people can do is to get involved in a community of people committed toward action. The power of one only goes so far. Engagement with other human beings is how we effect change.
Beavan's message speaks to me on Shavuot. The early biblical images of Shavuot as an agricultural festival evoke the deep connection between Judaism and the earth. At the same time, the image of the people gathered as a community at Mt. Sinai reminds us that we are more likely to bring healing to our planet when we work together. The beginning of summer might inspire some to join a community garden to provide greenery and produce, particularly in urban communities that lack either or both. If one can't depend on growing one's own food, like most of us, we can join community supported agriculture cooperatives (CSAs). We can engage in any number of activities in a group such as neighborhood clean-ups, advocacy and community organizing, that promote environmental justice. On Shavuot, we are reminded that our communal effort to bring healing to the planet and fellow human beings is covenantal work imbued with the spirit of the Divine.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post.