Embodiment and Responsibility for Shavuot
Over the next two weeks, we will celebrate Shavuot, the day that commemorates receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai, and mark the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, which sparked the racial justice uprising that continues today. I see an intersection of these two days in the practice of embodiment and in the middah of Achrayut/Responsibility.
The general principle with Jewish holidays is that light and spiritual potential of that holiday becomes available each year at that time - liberation at Passover, joy at Sukkot, transformation at Purim and so on. Shavuot is Zman Matan Torateinu/the time of the giving of our Torah. Torah is a gift, so how do we receive it new each year? '
Rabbi Joel Sirkus (d. 1640, Poland) points to the blessing said before learning Torah as a pathway towards receiving Torah anew. The blessing goes, “Blessed are You, Sovereign of the Universe, who sanctified us with the mitzvot, and commanded us to La’asoke/engage with the words of Torah.” Note that the directive is not to “learn Torah,” but to engage. The Hebrew root for La’asoke means to work at, to engage with, and to occupy. I’ve heard a playful interpretation from Rabbi Arthur Waskow that we are to “soak” ourselves in Torah.
Relating to the import of this blessing, Rabbi Sirkus describes that the ideal intention for engaging with Torah is for our bodies and lives to become literal vessels for Torah. May we become walking Torah scrolls who have so embodied its teachings. This is not a “nice to have” but actually the intended way to engage with Torah. Since we and our bodies are always changing every year and every moment, if we engage with Torah with the intention of bringing it into our emotional and physical being, it will by necessity enter us in new ways each time as we grow. I find this to be an exciting and enlivening way of entering Shavuot and engaging with Torah all year.
The racial justice uprising and awakening of the past year has featured a heightened awareness of the role of our bodies in undoing the harmful effects of racism. Resama Menakem’s work on trauma may be the most well known of the growing world of somatics-based practitioners and approaches to bringing our bodies to the work of racial justice. Rabbi Toba Spitzer draws on an environmental analogy, talking about social oppressions like racism as toxins in the environment that impact all in that environment. The work is clearly different for people who inhabit Black and non-Black bodies, yet the need to engage on the body level is becoming more and more clear.
Achrayut/Responsibility is the second point of connection between Shavuot and racial justice. As Jews, we need to take responsibility for Torah. The Torah was given to all of us for all time. It is ours to learn, rejoice with, struggle with and create with. We are responsible for how it lives and breathes in each generation. This takes a full body commitment to Torah.
For those of us in the United States, we are responsible for how white supremacy plays out in this country. We are seeing backlash in the form of state-level legislation banning certain anti-racist education, and are also seeing backlash in the Jewish community to vigorous efforts to advance racial justice. It is vitally important not to let this pushback take away resolve, especially among white Jewish liberals and moderates, for taking responsibility. We need to continue taking responsibility for how the systems of housing, health care, education and criminal justice have mistreated Black people for years and continue to do so. We need to take responsibility for changing those systems.
As we renew our Covenant with God through the Torah next week, and acknowledge the year-anniversary of George Floyd’s murder the week after, let us bring our full bodies to the task of becoming walking Torahs, embodying the dignity and holiness that cannot abide the presence of something as dehumanizing as racism to continue to distort our self-image, our relationships and our social policy.