The Spirituality of Volcanoes

This posting was originally posed on the Rabbis Without Borders blog on My Jewish Learning. You can read the original here.

While perhaps we are more familiar with the destructive nature of earthquakes and hurricanes and tornados, since they occur more frequently and make the national news more often, I have come to understand the risks and power of volcanoes.

We don’t generally think of volcanoes here in the US, but many of the major peaks in the Western United States (including Alaska and Hawaii) are volcanoes, the most famous of which is Mount Saint Helens in Washington State which erupted in 1980, killing 57 people and doing tremendous damage. Mount Rainier, a peak that has an impressive place in the skyline of where I live, is a volcano that last erupted 1,000 years ago which the United States Geological Survey Volcano Hazards Program rates as having a “very high” threat potential.

And now Kilauea volcano in Hawaii is erupting, spewing toxic gas into the air and creating lava flows that have entered residential neighborhoods and destroyed homes.

I think about volcanoes as we draw closer in the Jewish calendar to the holiday of Shavuot, the once-agriculturally-based festival whose primary association now is with the biblical story of the revelation at Sinai. The Torah relates how after the Israelites left Egyptian slavery, the story we marked on Passover a few weeks ago, they made their way to Mount Sinai where they received the Torah from God. The Torah formed the basis for the covenant between the people and God, and would serve as the foundation of the new society created by this newly freed people, a foundation that has been passed down to us. This is what we mark on Shavuot, through prayer and dedication to study.

The revelation at Sinai is not a quiet affair, as we read in the book of Exodus, “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for God had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently.” (Exodus 19:18)

Sounds like a volcano to me.

The point is not to explain away biblical stories by pointing to possible natural reasons behind the descriptions. The point is that the description of a divine revelation complete with smoke, fire, and quakes has a parallel in nature that can inform our understanding of the experience of the event.

What I find remarkable and interesting about volcanoes is that the forces that cause them to erupt are both visible and hidden. Visible in that a volcano is a mountain—it stands out, it is a known location, one could mark it on a map. And at the same time, the forces that cause it to erupt lay beneath the surface. A known volcano can be dormant for centuries, until it erupts. Or, in other words, a volcano is just a mountain, until it is not.

Much like Mount Sinai in the story. It was just a mountain, until it erupted with the divine presence, until it took on the significance of being the place that God and humanity met to form a new bond and deepen their relationship. It wasn’t even known as the tallest of mountains—an ancient midrash (commentary) relates how other, taller and larger, mountains made the case to God to be the site of revelation. But, as the commentary concludes, Sinai was chosen specifically because it wasn’t the tallest, serving as a symbol of modesty and humility.

We model that humility by seeing anything—a modest mountain, an unassuming person—as a potential source for divine power. The external tells us one thing, but the internal may tell us another. Our sources of inspiration, of challenge, of growth may come from anywhere, we just need to be prepared to receive it.

Don’t Just Mark the Jewish Holidays, Mark the Jewish Intervals

This post originally ran on the Rabbis Without Borders blog. You can read the original here.

The Jewish calendar is a bit interesting since we also live on Gregorian time. The fact that it is a lunar-based calendar means that every year the Hebrew dates shift vis-a-vis the “regular calendar” so that certain holidays, while they fall around that same time each year, will fall on a different date of the Gregorian calendar.

Internally, the Jewish calendar is also interesting in its composition, with its cycle of festivals and special days. While the Jewish calendar, like other calendars from other traditions, has a sequence of holidays to mark natural seasons and historical events; it also gives us the opportunity to focus our thoughts and spiritual energy on important ideas and values. Additionally, the Jewish calendar has a series of important “intervals” that link the various holidays, not just highlighting important days, but important times.

These times can be the holidays themselves—Passover, for example, is not one day but a week, giving us a period of time to remember the Exodus and reflect on the themes of oppression and liberation. In the fall when we celebrate the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we do not just mark those individual days, but the period of time between them takes on heightened importance as the Yamim Nora’im, “The 10 Days of Repentance”—a week and a half to reflect, repent and take stock of our lives and behaviors.

On the contemporary calendar, we just recently marked both Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. The former marking the greatest tragedy of modern Jewry, and the latter marking one of modern Jewry’s greatest projects. And the six days between these two days give us the opportunity to reflect on the interplay between them: not just how the historical fact of one contributed to the historical fact of the other, but how tragedy and renewal, despair and hope, mourning and celebration are a continual cycle in our lives.

And now we are continuing through the period of the Omer, the seven-week period that links Passover and Shavuot, the festival marking the events of Sinai—the creation of the covenant and the revelation of the Torah. A biblically-ordained practice to literally count the 49 days, the Counting of the Omer has its roots in ancient agricultural cycles. Today, it serves as a means to link the themes of the two holidays: how simply breaking the chains of oppression does not lead to true freedom, but rather developing a system to guarantee those freedoms does. The Omer allow us to continue the process of leaving behind that which binds us that we began on Passover and to prepare ourselves for the new wisdom and insight that we will receive on Shavuot.

When I was reflecting on some of these ideas at my congregation over Shabbat, I was approached after the service by a congregant who is a runner. He explained to me that to be a successful runner, one needs to pay attention to the intervals—the time between runs. It is his belief that the intervals are as important if not more important than the runs themselves. We need to be able to rest and recover from one run in order to perform at our best at the next one.

The Jewish calendar and yearly holiday cycle contains similar wisdom. We celebrate and mark the important occasions. But we also need to pay attention to the intervals, the time between those occasions. They are as important as the days themselves, for they allow us to fully integrate the spiritual teachings of one holiday and prepare us to fully prepare for the next.

Counting Cards

In the Jewish calendar we are currently in the period of the Omer.

Originally, in the Torah, the Omer is a means to mark harvests. An omer is a sheaf of barley, and we are told to count the days between the festivals of Passover and Sukkot, to count the time between harvest seasons. As we moved away from a purely agrarian society, the Omer period took on more historical meaning—it linked Passover, the festival marking the story of the Exodus, or the Israelites leaving slavery in Egypt, to Shavuot, the festival marking the story of Sinai, the Israelites receiving the Torah and forming a new covenant.

It’s this latter meaning that has taken on import today. It is a reminder that the freedom from oppression was not complete until there was a new societal system in place to guarantee these new freedoms. It is a good social justice lesson—that we must work to overturn systems of oppression, but we must be careful not to replace them with different systems of oppression.

And the Omer too is a personal spiritual journey: having liberated ourselves from that which confines us—our own personal Egypts—we seek to grow in wisdom and knowledge—our own personal Sinais.

The Jewish mystics understood this aspect of the Omer journey, that the time on the calendar between Egypt and Sinai is a time to be spent in preparation to receive the wisdom and knowledge we need to receive. It is, in a way, an extension of or the next chapter of the Exodus: now that we are liberated, we seek to use our new found liberation to continue to grow.

To mark each day (and the ritual practice is to literally count each day—every evening first to recite an appropriate blessing for the practice than to “announce” the day) the mystics first assigned each week one of seven sephirot, or divine qualities or “emanations.” There are actually ten in the traditional understanding, but they are seen as hierarchical, connecting the human and the divine, and the “top three” are seen as existing solely in the realm of the divine. The “lower seven” are accessible to and able to be made manifest by humans.

These seven sephirot are (and note the translations are not exact, each sephira embodies embodying multiple facets):

  • Chesed (lovingkindness, compassion)
  • Gevurah (strength, discipline)
  • Tiferet (beauty, harmony)
  • Netzach (endurance, victory)
  • Hod (splendor, glory)
  • Yesod (foundation, basis)
  • Malchut (sovereignty, indwelling presence)

Then, each day within a week is assigned a sephira. So each day of the Omer becomes an exercise in reflection as we are meant to reflect on the intersection of the two sephirot.

The assignments for each day doesn’t change each year, but since we do, this is sometimes enough to find new meaning each year in this annual practice. This year, however, I embarked on a new Omer counting practice, joining up again with Kirsten, my Carpooling partner.

Kirsten is a student of Tarot (as viewers of the series will know!). I had not known much about Tarot myself beyond basic cursory knowledge, but from what I learned from Kirsten, an aspect of the practice that resonated with me is how the cards can be used for setting an intention. Each card carries a particular meaning, and the act of drawing cards for a particular circumstance is a way of setting that intention for oneself, a personal kavannah.

In a conversation about the Omer, we hit on the idea: Kirsten draws a card for each day of the Omer, and we communicate about the intersection between the meaning of the day based in the Jewish mystical tradition and the card that she selected for that day. We would then write an intention for the day to go alongside an image of the card. So, we did it. We have been calling it “Omer with Tarot,” and you can find it (and follow it) on Facebook, Instagram and on a dedicated website.

Our practice is, on the one hand, a great way to simply maintain the daily practice of counting, one that I admit I am sometimes a bit lax about. But being accountable to thinking about the day, the card, the sephirot, the intention and then collaborating on writing something has been a good way to count each day.

In addition, it’s been a wonderful and powerful exercise in thinking broadly about spiritual practice, of dialogue among different practices and traditions and of opening myself up to engaging with Jewish tradition in new and interesting and thought provoking ways.

And that, in and of itself, embodies the spirit of the Omer: how can we open ourselves up to receive wisdom, no matter from where it may come? On the way to Sinai the Israelites were preparing to receive a new source of teaching and guidance which they had not experienced previously, a new source of teaching and guidance that would give shape to their lives and set a new intention for their future.

As we make our own spiritual journey of the Omer, we do the same.

Collaboration + Compassion = Wisdom

Earlier this past week I was back east to attend the board meeting of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, my professional organization. I serve as the 1st Vice President, having been elected to that position by my peers this past March after serving a few years on the Board in other capacities. We meet in Philadelphia biannually, in the spring and in the fall.

It’s been a great experience to serve in this capacity; I get a lot of meaning from these gatherings both because we are addressing organizational issues, thinking through what it means to be an association in support of rabbis, both personally and professionally, and because it is another forum in which I get to grapple with the issues facing the American Jewish community and the Jewish world today. At these meetings I have had some very deep, thoughtful, engaging, challenging and inspiring conversations.

This past meeting we did something new and different. Before we convened as a full Association board, we held a joint session with the board of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College/Jewish Reconstructionist Communities, the arm of the movement overseeing the education of rabbis as well as the congregational services. We spent some good energy doing some visioning work as to how we can best serve both our own movement and the Jewish people.

At that session I was honored to be invited to speak about “hopes and fears” as a pulpit rabbi specifically, both for me and those I serve. I shared my thoughts on inequality as I expressed last week in my Rabbis Without Borders blog post: “Funding Innovation is Nice, Now Let’s Redistribute Wealth,” about the inequality of resources among congregations, which leads to an inequality of experiences and education. The hope of those I serve is for meaningful Jewish experience, and the fear is that I can’t provide it because of limited resources.

But moreso than what was discussed was the idea of the collaboration itself that seemed to be the big breakthrough. While from the outside it shouldn’t necessarily seem that way, our boards as a whole don’t get together that often (though there is mutual representation on both). For while we are both a part of the same movement, we serve different constituencies and have different missions.

But there is, of course, common ground, and the ability to explore this in depth was a good experience.

As we draw closer to the Festival of Shavuot this coming weekend, we can reflect on the nature of the Israelites’ journey out of slavery, coming to its climax. The Festival of Shavuot is the festival of Sinai, marking and celebrating the story of the revelation on Mount Sinai, when the Israelites received the Torah and commandments from God via Moses. (See Mel Brooks version) It is a story of covenant, when the Israelites fully became a free people by forming a new society based around a new organizing structure. We remember our own covenants, our own relationship to sacred text, and our own commitments to community.

There are many midrashim (commentaries) about the Torah story bout Sinai, and one I particularly like is based on a close reading of the Hebrew. In Exodus 19:1-2 we read, “In the third month after the Children of Israel left Egypt, the same day they came to the wilderness of Sinai. And when they left Refidim and came to the wilderness of Sinai, they camped there. They camped facing the mountain.”

What is lost in translation is that the first few verbs–“came,” “left,” and the first instance of “camped”–are all in the plural. The final verb “camped” is in the singular form. The ancient commentary Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael understands this to mean that when they were travelling towards Sinai the community was constantly quarreling, they were divided, they were separate. But when they arrived at Sinai they were “of one heart,” they were joined together, they were united. It was only after this unity were they able to received the Torah and be open and receptive to its wisdom.

We are hearing a lot about “unity” these days, as each of the major political parties is seeking “unity” around their chosen candidates in order to be better positioned in the fall elections. But while both sides talk of “unity” we know that the early part of this election season revealed some deep divides within the parties.

What then is unity? Is it thinking with one mind, feeling with “one heart.”? We should be wary, perhaps, because the quest for “unity” could be a means to quash dissent or silence voices. We should be open to difference, for it is from constructive conflict and disagreement that we can grow. The key is how we relate to that difference.

When I was in Philadelphia, I took the train each day between my friend’s house in Bryn Mawr, PA where I was staying and the rabbinical college in Wyncote, PA. At the station near the college was an advertisement talking about a new hospital merger. The sign read “collaboration + compassion” and it struck me as very instructive. When differing groups join together, maybe the goal is not to become completely of “one heart,” but to collaborate, to work together, to join forces in a common goal recognizing where they are alike and understanding where they are different. And the key to relating is to approach each other with compassion, with deep love and caring and desires for positive outcomes.

This “collaboration + compassion” is what I felt when these two boards met earlier this week to find common cause and recognize the organizational differences. We approached each other with a desire to work together and with care for our shared hopes and fears.

And perhaps it was this “collaboration + compassion” which defined the ancient Israelites at Sinai, who camped by the mountain with a verb in the singular. They were together, unified but not united, not of “one heart” but with open hearts to one another. And it was this condition, ready to collaborate and act with compassion, that allowed the Israelites to be prepared to receive the Torah.

If we seek out opportunities for collaboration while acting with compassion, then we too will be blessed with wisdom and vision.

Over the Hump

Today is the minor holiday of Lag B’Omer, the 33rd Day of the Omer, the seven week period that spans the weeks between Passover and Shavuot.

There are a few associations for this holiday. One is that it is the traditional yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a Talmudic rabbi known for his deep knowledge and mystical powers. A story is told how he, in hiding from the Roman authorities, spent 12 years in a cave with his son learning Torah and Jewish wisdom. When he emerged, he ended up setting fire to the world around him, and he needed to be sent back into the cave to settle down. To mark the anniversary of his death, it has become customary to visit his grave in northern Israel and to light bonfires symbolizing both his power and the light of Torah and tradition.

[Last year I was in Jerusalem on Lag B’Omer, and it was a crazy scene of people collecting large piles of wood—mostly pallets—and bringing them to empty lots where families and communities would gather for bonfires and picnics.]

Another story in the Talmud gives a different association for this day: it is told that a plague wiped out many students at the academies of the time, and many prominent scholars died. It was on Lag B’Omer that the plague ended, and so the day has become one of celebration.

This association with the plague is what leads the period of the Omer to be considered a period of semi-mourning, and that traditional observance is to refrain from holding celebrations such as weddings during these weeks, at least up to Lag B’Omer. There is also the custom of not shaving or cutting one’s hair.

I don’t generally treat the period as a mourning period, but I do maintain the practice of not shaving or cutting my hair. At sundown last night I went into the bathroom and emerged newly shorn. For me, while the story of the plague is may not be a compelling motivator for spiritual practice, the idea behind it is.

As mentioned, the Omer is the period on the Jewish calendar between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. Passover, which marks the story of the exodus from Egyptian slavery, is the festival of liberation. Shavuot, which marks the revelation at Sinai, is the festival of the giving of the Torah, of law, of covenant. The Omer period is the seven weeks between these holidays, and we ritually count each day.

As we link these two holidays ritually, we link them thematically. The joining of Passover and Shavuot reminds us that leaving Egypt is just the beginning of the journey. While it marks the liberation from Egyptian slavery, linking it to Shavuot reminds us that the ancient Israelites weren’t completely free until they received the Torah and formed the covenant with God. In other words, a people weren’t truly free until they had a new society, a new system of governance, a new organizing structure that would guarantee their freedoms and form the basis for the community moving forward.

Thus the Omer marks the in-between time of leaving one reality and entering another, which can be a time of uncertainty and precariousness. The idea of the plague, then, has resonance: a story of an epidemic is also a story of uncertainty and precariousness. When we “mourn,” we are not necessarily mourning loss, but acknowledging the lack of control and fragility that comes with life.

This idea is also reflected in the Omer’s agricultural roots. In the Torah, the beginning of the Omer was marked by bringing a sheaf (“omer”) of barley to the priest who would wave it as a prayer of hope for a good harvest. At the end of the Omer period, the time of the harvest, the first fruits would be brought to the priest as an offering of thanks. The Omer period can then be understood in this sense of fragility as well, since a good harvest is hoped for, but not guaranteed, and each day of plant growth comes with uncertainty. We can think about this as we prepare our own gardens for the season.

But on this journey of fragility, we pause on this day to celebrate.

And it makes sense that we should. For today, on the 33rd day of this 49 day journey of the Omer, we are closer to Sinai than we are to Egypt. We are closer to full liberation than we are to oppression. We are closer to harvest than we are to planting.

This in-between time can be one of uncertainty and precariousness. But it can also be a time of anticipation and growth in the expectation of what comes before us.

While I don’t always read my horoscope (I’m a Cancer), mine for this week from Free Will Astrology seemed particularly apt:

French painter Henri Matisse didn’t mind being unmoored, befuddled, or in-between. In fact, he regarded these states as being potentially valuable to his creative process. Here’s his testimony: “In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows.” I’m recommending that you try out his attitude, Cancerian. In my astrological opinion, the time has come for you to drum up the inspirations and revelations that become available when you don’t know where the hell you are and what the hell you’re doing.

In the in-between, we may not know where we are or what we are doing. But we are supported by the fact that amid such uncertainty is the promise of a better future. On this Lag B’Omer we celebrate our ability to leave behind what it is we need to leave behind, even if we are not sure about what is to come.

We Don’t Count

Last Saturday night we ushered in the festival of Shavuot, which celebrates the story from the Book of Exodus of the revelation at Sinai—the story of how, after freeing the Israelite slaves from Egyptian bondage, God gives the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. This act is the foundation story of the covenant, the sacred bond which binds each person to the divine and each person to each other.

While this is the reason for the holiday, its name betrays a different origin. Shavuot in Hebrew means “weeks,” and it is because the holiday falls seven weeks after Passover. This is based on the holiday’s agricultural roots; originally Shavuot marked the end of the spring harvest season that began at Passover time. The Torah says to literally count the days between the two festivals. (Indeed, unlike the other holidays, Shavuot does not have a set date in the Torah—just that it falls 50 days after Passover begins.)

While the agricultural roots are not primary anymore, and while we can fix the calendar in advance, we still count the days. This period between the two holidays is called the Omer—the Omer is a sheaf of grain—and the practice is to recite a blessing each evening and then count the day with a simple formula, “Today is the Xth day of the Omer, marking X weeks and X days of the Omer.” We last counted the Omer this year on Friday night—the 49th day—and with the onset of Shavuot we completed our counting ritual.

This is not the only time in our tradition that we count. Numbers have great meaning in Jewish tradition, and the fact that “counting as ritual” is a part of our practice may not be a surprise. In addition to the “Counting of the Omer” we can also think of the four cups of wine that mark the Passover Seder or the enumeration of the 613 Commandments. When we light the menorah on Hanukkah, we are also counting—each new candle for each day indicates what day we are celebrating until we get to the last night, the eighth night, and our menorah is fully lit. And even each week we count the days until the sacred day of Shabbat, for in Hebrew, the days of the week are not Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, etc. but Yom Rishon, Yom Sheni, Yom Shlishi, etc. (“First Day, Second Day, Third Day, etc.”). Shabbat is the only day that has a “name.”

And while we have many counting rituals, according to Jewish law and practice there is one thing we are forbidden to count. People.

We are not allowed to count people. Right before Shavuot last week we celebrated Shabbat, and the weekly Torah portion for that Shabbat was Bamidbar, the first portion of the Book of Numbers. While in Hebrew Bamidbar means “In the Wilderness,” taken from the first verse of the book (although it is a hint of the theme of the book, the wanderings of the Israelites), the English name is a reference to the first action in the book: a census. Prior to their wanderings, God tells Moses to take a census of the Israelites in order to be prepared for the journey and to “line up” correctly.

But as we learn from another place in the Torah, an earlier census described in Exodus 30, the census is not done directly. The census was conducted by collecting a unit of money, a half-shekel, from each person. Thus the half-shekels, and not the people directly, were counted, and funds turned over for the Tabernacle and the public welfare.

This act comes to teach a lesson–that we should not count people directly, but rather indirectly. In practice today, this comes up most often when the need arises to determine whether or not there is a minyan present. A minyan is a quorum of 10 adult Jews required for certain prayers, such as the Mourner’s Kaddish, during the worship service. If the room is packed, then there is no need to count. But if there is a small number, it is necessary to count in order to determine that there is ten.

So how do we count if we are not allowed to count? There are several customs. One is to count body parts or articles of clothing, that is, one does not count people, but noses, or shirts. Another is to say, “not-one, not-two…” (I learned this as a kid.) A third practice is to use a phrase or a biblical verse that has ten words in it, reciting each word as you note the people in attendance. (This is the one I use, using Hamotzi, the blessing over bread. Psalm 23:10 is a popular choice as well.)

Perhaps silly in practice, but not in spirit. The reason why we do it like this is hinted in the Exodus passage mentioned above: “When you take a census of the Israelite people according to their enrollment, each shall pay God a ransom for himself on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being enrolled. This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by sanctuary weight…” (Exodus 30:12-13) With the juxtaposition of the census, the half-shekel and the plague, the text is understood to mean that it is the act of conducting the census with the half-shekel that avoids the plague. A plague will come if you count people directly.

Or, in other words, bad things will happen when you reduce a person to a number.

Here then is an important lesson about our common humanity. Each and every one of us is a fully whole human being with hopes, dreams, ideas, fears, joys and pains. We are unique individuals connected to yet separate from those who we are in contact with. To assign a person a number, even if for a good reason, is to take away a part of that humanity.

One of our fundamental Jewish teachings is about the sanctity of human life, both of our own and those who are around us. The Torah that we celebrated last week as our foundational text teaches that we are all created in the image of God, and that we are commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is at the heart of all of the ethical imperatives expected of us, and the simple act of not counting is a good way to remind ourselves of this principle.

As our community is still reeling from and coming to terms with the police shooting of two African American men last week, marchas the #blacklivesmatter movement comes to our streets, we would do well to remember this. Whatever the circumstances of this particular shooting, we are reminded that because of history, because of bias, we still have much work to do to realize this ideal of a common humanity and equality in our country.

And it will take our humanity to realize this. To understand that none of us is perfect and that we make mistakes, and at the same time we have the capacity to grow and change. That no one is wholly good or wholly evil. The circumstances of this incident will be investigated, which will probably be unsatisfying to some. But the real test is what comes next—can we take what happened last week and become better people and a better community because of it?

To do that, we must remember that we matter, but we don’t count.

Shavuot: Learn, Teach, Read Ruth, Plant, Eat Fruit, Eat Dairy, Commit

Poor Shavuot.

In our Jewish calendar, we have minor holidays that get the major holiday treatment. Hanukkah, for example. It is not a biblical holiday, it does not strike major theological notes, yet since it falls in the winter around Christmastime, it tends to get much attention and observance.

Then we have major holidays that get the minor holiday treatment. And Shavuot is the perfect example. Shavuot (literally, “Weeks”) is a biblically-ordained festival and is one of the three major pilgrimage festivals, along with Sukkot and Passover, on the calendar. (“Pilgrimage festival” because it was a festival in ancient times during which people would go to Jerusalem to the Temple to celebrate and make offerings.) That puts it just below Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as to importance. But because it falls in Spring when we are occupied with other things (end of school, Memorial Day) and because there are no major rituals connected with it, it tends to get forgotten.

Ritual is a big thing. It’s true, unlike the Passover Seder and the Sukkot, well, Sukkah, there are no big and flashy rituals The_Ten_Commandments_(Bible_Card)that go with Shavuot. Yet since it celebrates the revelation at Sinai, the giving of the Torah and the formation of the covenant, the gift of the sacred text that is to be our foundation, it is heavy on the theology. The rituals, or lack thereof, do not do it justice. (And just so you think I am too harsh on the holiday, note that I authored the chapter on Shavuot for the recently published Guide to Jewish Practice (from the Reconstructionist Press). The most common observance these days is a tikkun leyl Shavuot, a tradition to study Torah all night long.

Shavuot is called “weeks” because it falls 7 weeks after Passover, a period known as the Omer. Originally of agricultural origin, the Omer period links the two holidays—the festival of freedom with the festival of Torah. So as we prepare to celebrate Torah and the covenant, here are 7 ways (one for each week!) that you can observe Shavuot:

Learn: Torah is not a static document, and so when we celebrate the Revelation at Sinai, we celebrate the ongoing revelation that is interpretation and commentary. Torah is also an expansive term that applies to all Jewish texts, not just the Five Books of Moses. It is a spiritual practice in Judaism to “learn Torah”—which means to study, read, engage, argue with and make meaning from. So do a little learning. And don’t limit it to Torah. Use Shavuot as a time for learning in general, and find something you wanted to know and look it up—read a book, an article, watch a YouTube video. Finish the day a little more knowledgeable than when you started.

Teach: The corollary to Learn. Find the opportunity to teach something new this Shavuot. It could be something small or large, give a lecture or send a friend a link to an interesting article. We can not learn unless we are guided by someone either through direct instruction or by example, so use this opportunity of Shavuot to teach someone something.

Read Ruth: The Book of Ruth is associated with the holiday of Shavuot, and it is customary to read this short biblical book during the holiday. So, pick it up and read it. Its themes of joining the covenant resonate with the holiday, and the agricultural practice of leaving gleanings for the poor is a major plot point. But there is much more in there to explore: family relationships, especially between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law; communal obligations; personal and communal identity; in-group and intergroup relationships. And there is a sex scene. Ruth it is revealed at the end (spoiler alert) is the ancestor of David and thus the Messiah, so there are echoes of messianic hopes as well.

Plant: Biblically, Shavuot is an agricultural holiday. One of its names is Festival of the Harvest (Chag Hakatzir) since it marks the end of the spring grain harvest. And while later tradition puts the emphasis on the “historical” celebration of the giving of the Torah, we should still acknowledge its earthen roots. One of the traditional ways this connection was observed was decorating the synagogue with greenery. We can do this as well by decorating our home with some freshly cut flowers or a new houseplant. Or we can go outside and plant some seeds or a new shrub—something to deepen our connection with the earth.

Eat Fruit: Similarly, Shavuot in the Torah is also called the Festival of the First Fruits (Chag Habikkurim): a time in which farmers would bring their first fruits of their harvest to the Temple as a donation. It is a sign of gratitude for the land and other gifts of nature that allowed one’s harvest to be successful. During this season we too are becoming closer to the land as we plant gardens and witness the bounty beginning to make its way to farmer’s markets. And although “fruits” is a translation to mean “bounty” rather than actual “fruit” specifically (though it can refer to fruit), we do know that just now in the Northwest the first strawberries are ripening on the plant, and other plants are beginning to ripen and bear fruit. In celebration of these first “fruits,” find something you haven’t eaten yet this season and eat it intentionally over Shavuot.

Eat Dairy: There is also a custom of eating dairy on Shavuot. Why? It’s unclear. Some say that it is because the Israelites, having received the dietary laws at Sinai, didn’t have any properly prepared kosher meat on hand and therefore ate only dairy. Some say it is because the Bible in the Song of Songs equates Torah with “honey and milk.” But whatever the reason, grab a fork or spoon and dig into some cheesecake, or ice cream, or blintzes. Look for some recipes and get creative. (You can even combine dairy and fruit together!)

Commit: More than anything, Shavuot is a holiday in which we reaffirm our commitment to our tradition. The revelation at Sinai was an important theological event because it created the covenant of the Israelite people—the mass of people liberated from slavery becomes a people at Sinai with a new social contract to bind them to each other and to the divine. We are the inheritors of that covenant. So at Shavuot, we can demonstrate our recommitment and reaffirmation of that covenant. Some are a part of the covenant by birth, and some are a part of the covenant by affiliation and association. Some have affirmed this connection through conversion and Shavuot is a special time of celebration because Ruth (see above) is seen as the biblical ideal of a convert. But no matter how we find ourselves a part of the Jewish people, Shavuot is a time to celebrate and acknowledge that connection. How one does this is a matter of personal choice, but simply taking time out during the holiday to reflect on your connection to this tradition is a wonderful observance of this sacred day.

Chag sameach!

Atlas

This year I spent a very non-traditional Shavuot on the road, driving north on U.S. Highway 93 from Las Vegas to Wells, Nevada, a drive of almost 400 miles.

When we planned this trip, we knew it would take us over the holiday. We were in Vegas at the time visiting family, and although we thought about trying to find a tikkun (study session) at night or a service in the morning, we ended up just resting and taking it easy.

And so while I didn’t observe a traditional Shavuot this year, I have spent some time reflecting back on how this whole two week adventure was a revelation in and of itself. It was a trip of new experiences: our first family camping trip, the first time I went camping where I was the responsible one, first time to many parts of this amazing country. I have overturned old assumptions I held and discovered new skills I didn’t know I had, It was a trip of reconnecting with family and friends.

[On that last point, it was also a trip of surprises. An unplanned detour took us to wonderful Flagstaff, Arizona–my college roommate whom I haven’t seen in over a decade and currently lives in Tuscon saw on Facebook that I was headed toward the Grand Canyon. It turned out that he and his family were going there as well, although we would miss each other at the Canyon by a day. We ended up altering our plans to meet up with him in Flagstaff for a morning.]

And my Torah through this trip of revelation? The road atlas I purchased before we left. In this age of GPS even on your smartphone, an atlas seems like a relic, a novelty. I don’t even know if my kids have seen a road map before. But on a trip like this, a road atlas is a necessity, and not just because we drove through places without cell service.

GPS is best when you know exactly where you are going, and only need the narrow view. A map allows you to wander, consider alternatives and see the big picture. A map you can actually read, spend time with, contemplate. A map allows you to see the interconnectedness of locations over vast spans of distance.

On Shavuot we celebrate Torah and revelation, and how they are meant to orient our lives. The Torah is a life map, meant to be read, contemplated, acted upon. But the Torah is just that, a guide–it requires our agency and our ability to be open to discovery. We look at the big picture, but we also make choices. We make decisions, but must be open to the unexpected. Life is not just Torah. Life is Torah plus experience.

On this non-traditional Shavuot spent on a road trip, I understand how a road map can tell you somethings and not others. Lines and symbols don’t tell you about the beautiful mountains and valleys we drove through. The map didn’t include the tiny non-denominational chapel on the side of the road in Arizona. The cow lumbering down the highway in southern Utah was definitely off the charts.

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The Book of Nevada

Without the atlas, we would be completely lost. But without looking past the atlas, we wouldn’t fully see what it is possible to discover. Revelation requires both.

 

Mountains and Canyons

There is one blessing I have been saying a lot this trip:

Baruch atah Adonai eloheynu melech haolam oseh ma’aseh bereshit

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, sovereign of all time and space, who creates the works of Creation.

It is the blessing our tradition teaches we say whenever one sees an object of natural beauty. Traveling through southern Utah and northern Arizona there are many such opportunities. (I say it a lot at home as well whenever I can see Mount Rainier or the Olympics.)

One opportunity was sitting at night at my campsite looking up at a sky filled with stars. It was the most impressive night sky I have ever seen. Looking at that sky I think I understood the story of Abraham in Genesis for the first time–Abraham, having left everything behind to begin a new life, is unsure of his choice and the future ahead. God tells him to look up and assures him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.

The sky the Torah describes is not the light-polluted urban sky we usually see, but the desert sky undisturbed by human-created light. Looking at the sky of the high desert in Utah I understood how such an image can be comforting–giving one a sense that one is not alone, and that the impossible (how is such an amazing display even real?) is possible.

Another was the time when I laid eyes on the Grand Canyon for the first time. Words can not begin to describe the beauty and majesty of the Canyon.

Tonight we will begin the festival of Shavuot. Shavuot is a holiday that celebrates Torah and its centrality in Jewish tradition. We are a people centered around sacred text passed down through the generations. Each generation will receive, interpret and pass on Torah, and this process of reading, studying and interpreting is as much a part of Torah as the original words on the scroll. It is this we note, and it is traditional to mark Shavuot with late night study of Jewish texts and ideas.

During Shavuot we also call to mind the origin story the Torah tells of itself. Once freed from Egyptian slavery and brought across the Sea of Reeds into the wilderness, the Israelites are led by Moses to Mount Sinai. Moses ascends the mountain and meets with God, who reveals to Moses the Torah, the text that is to be at the center of this newly formed community and covenant.

Our ancestors saw God in the mountain. A mountain is indeed awe-inspiring and humbling feature of nature. It is not surprising that our ancestors looked upon the mountain and saw something greater than themselves, a sacred place, a place not where God lives, but a place to where one must go to meet God on important occasions. It is no wonder, then, that the story of Revelation happens on a mountain.

The Grand Canyon too is indeed an awe-inspiring and humbling feature of nature. We can look upon it and see something greater than us, a sacred space. Perhaps if our ancestors had the experience of the canyon, our story might be different.

Ultimately though, wherever we find inspiration and awe and humility can be sacred space. These awesome wonders of Creation (a term which in many ways is simply a means of referring to the natural world) help facilitate these moments. That is why we say a blessing.

Our ancestors saw God in a mountain. I had the experience of seeing God in a canyon. Taken together, it is a good reminder that while we often see God–and Torah–in the heights, in the highs, God and Torah are also in the depths, in the lows.

Chag sameach

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A mountain within a canyon–a view of Isis Temple within the Grand Canyon