Want to know about Shavuot?

May 25, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Ask the rabbi…

Rabbi Raymond Apple

HE CALLED IT CINDERELLA

In the synagogue in which I was brought up, Shavu’ot attracted a much smaller crowd than any other festival.

My rabbi held office at that synagogue for many decades and his verdict was simple: “It’s just like Cinderella”.

In the old fairy tale Cinderella was the poor girl whom nobody valued until at last she found her prince.

That’s what Shavu’ot is like, said my rabbi: a neglected treasure which nobody appreciates properly, though one day they will.

The problem of Shavu’ot is that it lacks the drama of Pesach: it has no Seder, matzah, Mah Nishtanah or Dayyenu. It has none of the things that bring the four sons back to the family table long after they have grown up, rebelled and left home.

It does have its cheesecake and blintzes, but these are poor substitutes and they cannot compete with the matzah.

Shavu’ot also lacks the colour and ceremony of Sukkot, with its lulav-waving and synagogal processions, not to speak of erecting the sukkah and eating al fresco despite the unpredictable climatic intrusions of wind, cold and rain. No wonder that when we sat in our London sukkah we wore hats, coats and scarves and still shivered, and sometimes we simply had to retreat to the house.

If Shavu’ot lacks the excitement of Pesach and Sukkot, it certainly can’t compete with the vivid, people-centred festivities of Chanukah and Purim.

If the truth be told, the Revelation theology of Shavu’ot is uniquely majestic and memorable, but most people can’t rise to that intellectual and ethereal level. If they could, it would be Cinderella finding her prince.

In the meantime, however eloquent the rabbis wax about Revelation, about religion and eternal truth, it’s all too highfalutin for most people.

My view is that the unpopularity of Shavu’ot has to do with fear – fear that the ugly duckling will become a swan and make things worse for the ordinary person.

On a superficial level, there is the fear that we might have to take the Torah seriously and become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation”. That’s too threatening for most people, who prefer a quiet, unchallenged life.

They would rather be fallible and inconsistent, comfortable with their own mix of Jewish ideas and usages but daunted by the stern requirements of full observance, not only the outward signs like Shabbat and kashrut, but the spirituality that might make us really face up to God (and ourselves)… and the ethics that would hold us back from the fast buck to give respect to other people, even, especially, those of a different colour, creed or commitment.

There is a deeper level of fear too. Let’s look back to Pesach. There are really two Pesachs – the overt, historical one we celebrate at the Seder, and the hidden or metaphorical one which is part of our prayers every day of the year, which speak of leaving Egypt and the blessings of freedom.

The first Pesach inaugurated our history as a people. It also launched our career as the world’s teacher of morality (“a light unto the nations”), dedicated to freedom, human rights and dignity. This is central at the Seder. It represents the Pesach principle of freedom, oscillating in word, song and symbol between the bitterness of slavery and the joy of release.

Yet Pesach is nothing without Shavu’ot. They are part of one another, tied together by the seven weeks of the Omer. They seem to stand for incompatible principles, freedom and law, the constraining of freedom. It seems that after the bondage, the Israelites hardly got a taste of freedom before being restrained and restricted.

The sages had an explanation. “No-one,” they said, “is free unless they are subject to the Torah”. A paradox. There is no such thing as freedom, at least in the sense of being absolutely free. Only God has that kind of freedom. Only He is the unmoved mover.

The Israelites who left Egypt had a dream: “Now we’re free, we’ll go where we want, we’ll do what we wish, we’ll live as we desire”.

Shavu’ot put an end to the dream. That’s why they were afraid; that’s why we are all afraid when Shavu’ot approaches – afraid that God is going to catch us and curtail our freedom.

The sages replied, though not in these words, “Freedom? What freedom?”

Rav Soloveitchik asked, “Is man ever truly free? Is he not a prisoner of natural law, subject to the caprices of his state of health, the intrusion of accidents, and the ever hovering specter of possible death? These are physiological constraints. Man is also subject to social pressures: the mores of his society, the biases of his family, and the prejudices of his class. In reality, supposedly free man is buffeted, pressured, coerced, and restricted in his options, even if no human taskmaster hovers over him…”

Man is constantly subject to influences. He will never be off the leash. At best he has a choice between leashes, a choice between constraints.

He can opt for or accept man-made pressures or restrictions which turn him into a toy of other people or situations, or a life under God which enables him to become what he has the capacity to be.

Erich Fromm says, “Positive freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated personality”. Abba Hillel Silver says, “A man is free only when he has an errand on earth”. Ahad HaAm says, “What is national freedom if not a people’s inner freedom to cultivate its abilities”.

Rabindranath Tagore says, “I have on my desk a violin string. It is not fixed into my violin. It is free to move, to be blown anywhere. What it cannot do is make music. But when I fasten it into my violin, it is no longer free to move. But it is free for the first time to make music.”

Our choice is not between freedom and unfreedom. It is the freedom to choose our master – to choose between humans and God. With God we are likely to get a better deal.

When we realise that truth, Shavu’ot will no longer be a Cinderella but a princess.

REVELATION AT SINAI

The Ten Commandments are the most famous document in Western civilisation, proclaimed by God at Mount Sinai amid a display of natural phenomena.

To the believer, there is no question that the event happened. God spoke, the Israelites heard, and history was changed forever.

But even the believer sometimes asks how Revelation works.

The Maggid of Kossov in the 18th century suggested, for example, that it was not actually God’s voice that was heard by Moses and the Children of Israel, but they apprehended the message with their intellectual and spiritual faculties.

The question is asked by Abraham Joshua Heschel: why should anyone need to know whether Revelation is scientifically possible?

Heschel says, “Every moment is a carefully concealed act of His creation… why should we assume that the endless is forever imprisoned in silence?”.

It may be that at the moment of Revelation all Israel were completely certain that they had received the message because it was a moment when they were all like prophets.

Maimonides argues (Guide for the Perplexed, 3:24) that it should not be thought that what a prophet perceives is not factual or is commingled with illusion.

He says, “What is perceived by a prophet is a certain truth; he has no doubts in any way concerning anything in it, and its status is the same as that of all existing things that are apprehended through the senses or through the intellect”.

Our cynical age is in error when it insists on measuring religious truth and spiritual experience against a scientific yardstick.

The question is not one of physics or mechanics but whether those experiencing great moments are adamant that the event has occurred and has changed their lives forever.

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