On Shavuot, We Must Study The Torah of Inclusivity, Accessibility, and Equality

While the traditional greeting for Shavuot is, like other holidays, chag sameach, one colloquial greeting that I’ve come across is “See you at Sinai.”

The idea behind that phrase is that while on Shavuot we remember the biblical story of the revelation of the Torah by God to Moses on Mount Sinai, a story recounted in the biblical book of Exodus following the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, we do so with the idea that revelation is not to be seen as a one time “event,” but rather an ongoing process. We are always in the process of receiving Torah, we are always “at Sinai.”

Shavuot is a day in which we mark not only a biblical story, but the idea that Torah forms the basis of our spiritual life as Jews. It is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to its teachings and the covenant that binds the Jewish people together.

One of the overriding themes of the story of revelation is that of inclusivity. In a famous commentary we read,

Why was the Torah not given in Eretz Yisrael? So as not to provide a pretext to the nations of the world to say, “Because it was not given in our land, that is why we did not accept it.” Alternatively, so as not to rouse contention among the tribes, one saying, it was given in my land; the other: it was given in my land. That is why it was given in the open desert. In three settings was the Torah given — desert, fire, and water. Just as these are free for all, so, Torah.

Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:2

In other words, the Torah was given in the desert so that no one person can lay exclusive claim to it. The Torah was given in the desert because it it meant to be accessible to all. The Torah was given in the desert as a statement of equality among all peoples.

My heart is heavy this Shavuot because we in America have demonstrated once again that we are not a society that values inclusivity, accessibility, and equality. The killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police is the latest incident of state violence against people of color, and an incident that comes on the heels of three men killing an African American man, Ahmaud Arbery, out for a jog in Georgia, and a white woman threateningly calling the police on an African American man in Central Park, NYC.

Add to these overt examples of violence the fact that communities of color are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, and we are reminded that systemic racism is woven deep into the fabric of our country.

Unlike some of our major holidays that have unique rituals–the Seder on Passover, or the shofar on Rosh Hashanah–Shavuot is marked primarily through prayer and study. It is customary to study Jewish texts and themes late into the night as a sign of recommitment to the Torah and its teachings. As we prepare to enter into Shavuot, in light of recent events, it is incumbent upon us to reflect deeply on the core themes of the Torah: that we must be a people that partners with God, embraces life, sees the divinity in all people, and strives to overcome oppression to build a community of peace and justice.

And this requires more than just reading and affirming the text and these principles. We need to have the humility to see where we have failed in embodying them, and commit to do overcome those failures. This requires us to see beyond ourselves to truly understand the experience of others, to move beyond our own stories to hear the stories of others. It requires an honest accounting of history, of inequality, of power, of privilege, and of oppression.

The story of the giving of the Torah is a story of inclusivity, accessiblity, and equality. As we celebrate that story on Shavuot this year, let us recognize who in our communities are left out and left behind, and recommit to create the conditions so everyone is able to receive God’s blessing.

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