50 Days, 50 Years

This coming week we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, the day on which we celebrate the biblical story of Sinai, when Moses, having brought the Israelites out of Egyptian, brings them to Mount Sinai. There, he ascends the mountain to meet with God, who gives him the Torah. The Torah is the basis for a new covenant between God and people, and the basis upon which the newly freed slaves will build a new society.

On this day we celebrate that mythic event while we reaffirm our own connection to Torah and the covenant of the Jewish people. There is a tradition that each and every Jew throughout all generations was present at Sinai, that we too are the inheritors of all the traditions and laws and ethics and wisdom contained within the text. Indeed, on Shavuot we celebrate how sacred text and its interpretive tradition from then until now sustain us as individuals and as a community.

The journey from Egypt to Sinai in the Torah story is a physical journey; in our liturgical calendar now we make a spiritual journey between Passover and Shavuot, which mark the two events, respectively. On our liturgical calendar the two holidays are linked by the period of the Omer. The Torah instructs us to literally count the days between the two holidays. Originally an agricultural practice relating to harvest seasons, the Omer now is a spiritual practice. We are counting the days until we receive Torah. We are counting the days from the beginning of the liberation to its culmination. We are counting the days until we attain wisdom.

That journey of the Omer then is one of opening, of preparing to receive what it is we need to receive. Traditional Jewish practice gives us several tools to do this—some study Pirke Avot, the ancient ethical text, some connect the days of the Omer with the Jewish mystical sephirot, or divine qualities. But however one does it, it is a period of spiritual intensity.

The key number in this journey is 50. For there are seven weeks of the Omer, thus 49 days total. Forty-nine days between the two holidays, Shavuot is the 50th day. Fifty therefore is a milestone, a number of completion and wholeness, the number of revelation and wisdom.

This is not the only 50 we are marking this year. Earlier this week was Yom Yerushalayim, the Israeli holiday that marks the reunification of Jerusalem after the Six Day War in 1967. It was during that war 50 years ago that Israel reclaimed the holy site of the Western Wall, expanded its territorial holdings, and once again fought off an encroachment by its neighbors.

It was truly a remarkable achievement, and a visit to the Western Wall is moving and powerful. To stand in front of the Wall, so close to where our ancestors worshiped in their own way, adds a timeless quality to the location. One of my most vivid images is being at the Wall for Erev Shabbat: as the sun sets, the light reflects off the ancient stones, voices from multiple clusters of people rise in prayer, and birds swoop and circle overhead.

We would do well to also see this 50 as a milestone, a number of completion and wholeness, a number of revelation and wisdom so we can see that there has been much to celebrate over these past 50 years. We as American Jews recognize the magnitude of the modern Jewish project known as the State of Israel. It was a momentous achievement in light of deep and rampant European anti-Semitism in the 19th and 20th century.

At the same time, the events of 1967 also brought about the situation that put Israel in physical, military, economic and emotional power over others, a situation that has worsened over these past five decades. This Occupation puts Israel in the position of controlling and oppressing another people, which provides a deep moral and spiritual challenge to the Jewish people.

We know that sometimes great achievements carry with them difficult costs. These costs don’t negate the achievements, but require their honest appraisal and acceptance.

There is another 50 I think about at this time, a reference to 50 taught in Pirke Avot, the ancient wisdom text studied at this time. In Pirke Avot 5:24 we learn:

Judah ben Teima used to say: At five years old a person should study the Scriptures, at ten years for the Mishnah, at thirteen for the commandments, at 15 for the Talmud, at 18 for marriage, at 20 for one’s life pursuit, at 30 for authority, at 40 for discernment, at 50 for counsel, at 60 to be an elder, at 70 for gray hairs, at 80 for special strength….

Fifty is the age not only of gaining wisdom (in line with Shavuot as 50), but also for giving advice, council and aid. We would do well to heed that advice at this time. Fifty years after 1967, after 50 years of conflict with the Palestinians, we would do well to raise our voices to offer counsel, to demand a situation that recognizes the narratives, the histories, the ideals, the hopes and the self-determination of all peoples in the region. To recognize and uphold the fundamental human rights and dignity of the Palestinian people just as we desire the fundamental human rights and dignity of the Jewish people to be recognized and upheld. To call for and work towards an end to the Occupation.

It is in this way that we can celebrate all that Israel was, is and continues to aspire to be, and it is in this way that we will be open to receive new wisdom of peace and justice, cooperation and compromise. That is something to celebrate.

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