Standing at Sinai

Shavuot is an opportunity to study together and reinvest in living a life of Torah

In Judaism we create meaning by reliving. Reliving allows us to enter the drama of our past and capture its meaning in an intense and personal way. On Passover we relive the journey from slavery to freedom. During the Seder we reenter the world of slavery through food and story. Then comes the transition to freedom marked with a delicious feast of the free, and we respond to freedom by singing songs of joy and gratitude.

The key line of the Seder is that, In every generation, each person is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she personally left Egypt. It is meant to transform us—deepening empathy for those who suffer and motivating activism to help them. Our reliving history continues the day following Pesach. We begin to count for 49 days, culminating in celebrating Shavuot. While originally an agricultural holiday celebrating the wheat harvest, the rabbis interpret this counting (sefirat ha-omer) as the journey from the Sea of Reeds (Passover) to Mount Sinai where we received Torah (Shavuot). Sinai was the goal and object of the Exodus; it gives meaning to our freedom. Our freedom is a means to live a holy life full of ethical meaning.

So on Shavuot we relive standing at Mount Sinai receiving the Torah. There is a custom to stay awake the entire night of Shavuot in preparation for the Revelation. At CBJ we use this as an opportunity to study together and reinvest in living a life of Torah. On the morning of Shavuot we read text describing the awesome revelation and the Ten Commandments. The liturgy of reenactment allows us to receive Torah anew. Shavuot is a holiday with less ritual than other holidays. There is no Seder as on Pesach, and no dwelling in a booth as on Sukkot. Perhaps there is no specific ritual beyond study and reading because each of us responds to Torah in a different way; the lack of ritual creates space for growth from day to day and year to year in our relationship to Torah. Torah is an ongoing dialogue where each generation and individual continues to ask, “What does this text mean to me right now?”

One way we will continue the dialogue is to come together on Saturday night, May 23. The theme of our study will be “Wrestling with Tradition.” Different congregants will share texts and mitzvot that cause challenge, either because they are difficult to fulfil—like the commandment not to gossip or judge a fellow person or one with whom you passionately disagree, or like the commandment to wipe out the inhabitants of the land upon conquest. We’ll also talk about personal challenges: balancing tradition in a culture with different pulls on our time, honoring parents when they have been hurtful, and finding personal meaning in a communal framework. The more we wrestle, the more we connect. Please join us as we relive Sinai this Shavuot.