Ahhh, it’s that time of year again; time for me to struggle with that oh-so rabbinic of holidays, Shavuot.
I love the original Shavous — a holiday celebrating the first fruits and vegetables to appear in the season, and a reason to travel long distances to share one’s bounty with neighbors and priests. That’s what the holiday was all about in the Torah. It was a spring harvest holiday, the yin-yang twin of the other harvest holiday that takes place in the fall: Sukkot. On this day, the Torah tells us, people would pack up the First Fruits of their harvest and make the long pedestrian trek to Jerusalem.
Take a moment and picture what a rag-tag scene that must have been. Donkeys and babies. Food and water canteens made, I am imagining, from the bladders of animals.
Then the stodgy halachists of the rabbinic era (c 300 CE) got ahold of Shavuot. Now the holiday has become burdened with the (much later) story that Shavuot was the day that Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It’s a nice story, a nice myth. The problem is that so many generations of Jews have turned this myth into “history.”
When a story like this becomes “history,” the inevitable question becomes who has the right (and power and authority) to interpret these Mosaic laws “given by God.” The rabbis of the rabbinic era made the holiday about the passing of law (and their right to interpret it) rather than the passing of rains and seasons. An entire system spanning 2,000 years of Jewish history has been built on the idea of rabbis declaring human laws as “coming from God.” It’s not any different than the power-grab done by every other major world religion (and probably every minor religion too.) But as a post-Enlightenment human being blessed to live in a relatively free world, I’d love for my religion and my people to just speak honestly about why things are the way they are.
I wish to keep my myths restricted to the reading of JRR Tolkien. And the holodec on Star Trek.
Sigh. I could use a little Rabbi Rami Shapiro at a time like this, and indeed, a quick google search led me to one. Rabbi Shapiro can always be counted on for breathing fresh air, insight, spirit and soul into every last creaky nook of our tradition. And on the topic of Shavuot, he does not disappoint. Here is a prayer R. Shapiro offers as an alternative aleiynu, for a Friday night Shavuot service. (The aleiynu is a standard prayer that appears in different versions throughout Jewish liturgy.)
I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!
It is up to us to hallow Creation, to respond to Life with the fullness of our lives. It is up to us to meet the World, to embrace the Whole even as we wrestle with its parts. It is up to us to repair the World and to bind our lives to Truth.
Therefore we bend the knee and shake off the stiffness that keeps us from the subtle graces of Life and the supple gestures of Love. With reverence and thanksgiving we accept our destiny and set for ourselves the task of redemption.
– Rami Shapiro