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  • Writer's pictureIOWA Project

The Spiritual Charge of Shavuot

Several days from now is Shavuot (May 28-30), the celebration of receiving Torah. While the all-night communal study sessions, cheesecake fests and other popular rituals will be much quieter this year, as they will be on-line or solo affairs, the event these rituals commemorate is anything but quiet. Exodus, chapter 19 describes that pyrotechnics that accompanied the revelation – “there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar…the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder….”(Ex. 19:16-19).

What was the purpose of the shofar blast accompanying the revelation of Torah? Reb Noson of Breslov (d. 1844, Ukraine) explains that the whole purpose of Torah is to become real in our hearts and in our actions. The shofar blast comes to awaken our hearts to what we are hearing and learning so we will pray to be able to live the messages in Torah.

The Torah, which is the covenant between God and the Jewish people, is not something to be engaged from a distance. It is something to be felt, wrestled with, cried over, sung with, prayed about and lived. Nachmanides (d. 1270, Israel) writes that each holiday is spiritual opportunity to experience something of the essence of that time – on Passover to experience liberation, on Sukkot to experience God’s protection, and on Shavuot to experience receiving Torah and entering covenant.

The spiritual charge of Shavuot is to renew the covenant with God, both as individuals and as a community. What aspects of the covenant, expressed in the Torah, call to you most for renewal this year? At IOWA, we are thinking about:

The Jewish people’s role in the world as idol-smashers – following in the path of our ancestors Avraham and Sarah, we reject partial, concretized expressions of reality that masquerade as the whole. Our allegiance and search for truth points to the Infinite One who is beyond any definition, and we won’t be fooled into thinking any human-designed ideology or system deserves unthinking loyalty.

Our role as justice-seekers – again following our ancestor, Avraham, who taught his children the path of righteousness and justice, we commit to our covenantal role in caring for the well-being of all humanity and the planet, leaving no one behind.

The Jewish people’s insistence on affirming life – The Torah teaches that the mitzvot were given to live by them, and not die by them. The greatest way we hold up our part of the covenant is by adoring, cherishing and supporting life and doing what we can to enjoy and increase life through healing, economic justice and social connection.

Joy – following our prophetess, Miriam, who led the women dancing with timbrels in the desert, we live the covenant by allowing our hearts to feel the pure joy of community, relationship, nature and simply being alive. Expressions of gratitude in song and prayer are among the many ways we make joy real.

We are people to testifies to the possibility of liberation – In Pirkei Avot, chapter 6 we learn that when it is written in the Torah that God engraved the letters on the tablets, the word for “engraved” can also be read as “free.” Thus, it is Torah that represents freedom. Torah could only be given to a free, liberated people who could freely choose to enter covenant. By extension, all people must be free to enter into a mature relationship with The Creator. We see our role as a covenantal people to work for our own, and universal liberation so all can live fully responsible and creative lives.

Join us in recommitting to covenantal living this Shavuot.

Chag Sameach!



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