This Sunday night we recommit ourselves to the Jewish covenant.
This Sunday night is Shavuot, the festival of Torah. We celebrate the story of Revelation in the Book of Exodus, when Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from God, and a group of former Israelite slaves from Egypt coalesced around the notion of covenant to become a people. On Shavuot, through prayer and study (and, interestingly, dairy foods), we commit ourselves once again to that covenant as the spiritual descendants of those Israelite slaves.
We also recommit ourselves to the Jewish people. Through the Torah and the chain of tradition it bore, the Jewish people have grown and spread across the globe, developing text, tradition, culture, language, food, folkways, music, and art.
And we recommit to the Jewish past and the Jewish future. Shavuot is also the holiday of conversion, as we read the biblical story of Ruth, who is seen in Jewish tradition as the paradigmatic Jew by Choice, who famously declares to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Wherever you go, I will go…your people will be my people and your God, my God.” I often tell those with whom I work for conversion that by joining the Jewish people (and the whole Jewish people, not just a part) they become the inheritors of Jewish history, and cast their lot with the Jewish future.
It is perhaps this overlap with Shavuot and the idea of recommitting once again to the Jewish people that makes the news out of the Mideast so painful this week, because we are confronted with the pain of the Jewish past and the uncertainty of the Jewish future.
I approach what happens in Israel/Palestine from the standpoint as a rabbi—in other words, not as an expert or pundit or standard bearer, but a member of the Jewish people myself who also holds responsibility for a small part of the Jewish people. As a contemporary expression of the Jewish people, Israel plays a role in our Jewish identities, even outside of Israel.
[This week also saw the release of the latest Pew report on the American Jewish population, and we know from that study and others that Jews hold a spectrum of opinions on Israel, and yet we can honor them because they are all rooted in their identity as Jews. Our Jewish communities should be large enough to hold them all. And it is a guarantee that whatever I say will be unsatisfying to some, if not all.]
As an inheritor of the Jewish past, I know the important role that Israel has played for generations of Jews. Israel has become a home for several members of our extended TBH community, children and grandchildren, friends and family of members, and I pray for their safety. I think often of the story of my mother-in-law z”l, whose family fled Morocco when the forces of colonialism and resistance in that country became too much to bear for the Jews, who went to the only country that would accept and protect them. And my own travels to Israel have been formative learning and growth opportunities.
And as a creator of the Jewish future, I also stand in solidarity with the Palestinians who have suffered under an oppressive occupation and at the whims of governments that deny their basic humanity. Having travelled and witnessed in Palestine as well, these recent evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and other acts of dominance and violence—and the fear and distrust and anger they cause–were unfortunately familiar. I believe the future of Israel/Palestine, whatever form it may take, is dependent on co-existence.
It is a cliché to say the conflict is “complex,” and that is often used as an excuse for not listening to uncomfortable truths and narratives. But it is. Because it is a human conflict, and we humans are complex. It is a conflict rooted in history, domination, power, displacement, land and security. We are not served by oversimplification, and I believe that the extreme narratives of “white settler colonialism” vs. “Israel has the right to do whatever it can to defend itself” do not serve as a basis for a path forward. We also need to make distinctions between ideologies and actions (by individuals, by governments) carried out in the name of those ideologies. We know atonement comes in not undoing the past, but changing present conditions to create a better future.
Each week at Shabbat we say the words “ufros aleynu sukkat shlomecha” “spread over us your shelter of peace.” It is a prayer of safety and security and protection. Having seen an increase in violence and anti-Semitic incidents in this country, it is a prayer that resonates in our own Jewish communities in new ways. As violence escalates in Israel/Palestine, we once again extend that prayer: may all peoples find peace and safety.
The Jewish past is one that has contained both promise and pain, opportunity and oppression. As we mourn the dead and tend to the wounded, let us commit to a future that rewrites that story as one of peace and safety, justice and cooperation for us and for all peoples. This Shavuot we recommit to the Jewish people and the universal values of human dignity. That is the essence of the covenant of Sinai.