Thursday, May 28, 2009
This evening begins one of the most important, although ironically least observed, Jewish holidays: Shavuot. I have often wondered why the day that celebrates the giving of the Torah is not number #1 of our holidays. I suspect it is because the holiday lacks a central home ritual--and perhaps because it falls in late spring or early summer. Passover is better timed (especially because of school vacations) and has of course the seder. Sukkot the sukkah. Hanukkah the menorah. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur draws people to their synagogues. Purim carnivals entice parents to lead their costumed children to celebration. Shavuot has a book--the Torah. This to be sure is a hard sell. But this book is the center of our lives. It is the love of Torah, the love of books that has nurtured the Jewish soul for countless generatation. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch (who died in 1719) takes this view to an extreme when he argues that if one even finds a book shelved upside down, one is to turn the book right side up and kiss it. (Sefer Kav haYashar) In addition, for most reading a book is a solitary activity. Reading a book while being warmed by the sun and soothed by the ocean's waves is for many a #1 activity. Yet Judaism insists that we not read alone. So it is not so much the book but rather how we engage it that does not fit with contemporary society. Many are comfortable leafing through a book's pages or scrolling through a Kindle, but sitting across the table and arguing over every word and every phrase is what makes Shavuot feel remote. For Judaism literature is not an escape, to be relished on vacation, but a daily activity, a central enterprise. Studying Torah is how we engage the world. It is why we care for the world. On this Shavuot take time to re-engage Torah and thereby re-engage the world. Begin here with these websites: Shalom Hartman Institute and Nextbook. Chag Shavuot Samayach--a Happy Shavuot!