“The giving of Torah happened at one specific time,
but the receiving of Torah happens all the time,
in every generation.”
— Isaac Meir Alter (1799-1866)
In ancient times, our ancestors were instructed to make three pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem each year: at Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot. In those days, the year began in the spring, not the fall, and the major holiday was Sukkot, the harvest festival, often just called “ha’chag,” the holiday. Today, Passover is the most widely observed Jewish holiday, with its marvelous range of Seders. But in this time of climate change and changes in the political landscape—when not just Jewish lives but all of life on Planet Earth is in danger of extinction—I think that it’s time for us to shift our attention from the Passover narrative to that of Shavuot, from stories of Repression and Redemption to those of Revelation and Relationship. In order to make this shift, I am inviting you to reframe the way that you think about and celebrate Shavuot.
Sukkot and Passover are weeklong celebrations noted for their joyous observances, but Shavuot is a one- or two-day festival with far fewer symbolic rituals. While its origins are agricultural—Shavuot was the season when the first fruits and grains were brought to the temple—over time it’s come to be observed as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. For me, this is the doorway to its importance if we are going to survive, as Jews and as human beings. It’s an invitation for us to open ourselves up to that which some of us call The Life Force, The Creator, The Source, or just plain God, Goddess or what I find myself increasingly calling It, which I thought I made up until I found it online: Goddix.
I loved Shavuot as a boy because our synagogue, and even the inside of the ark, was decorated with plants and flowers, and the agricultural roots of the festival are also recalled by eating dairy meals. The book of Ruth, with its harvest references and woman-loving-woman story, is traditionally read on Shavuot. As butterflies disappear, as trees vanish, as farmers face different growing seasons, with less rain in some places and more in others, with increasing heat in some places and a growing cold in others, I think this notion of bringing nature and the world into our sacred spaces, and praying out of doors under sky and sun and trees will be useful.
It may also be useful for us to use the Counting of the Omer—the days between Pesach and Shavuot—as a time to wander around our neighborhood each day and notice everything around us … what we love, what’s changing, day by day by day till we get to Shavuot. Consider keeping a journal in which you record daily something that you love about the world, something that concerns you about the world, and then an action you commit yourself to take each day to help to heal the world.
My focus here, however, is on Shavuot itself. Some communities stay up all night studying from the Tanach and rabbinic texts. This custom began in mystical circles in 16th-century Safed as a way of preparing Jews to receive the Torah once again. Expanding on this tradition in a time of great change, both social and environmental, and when our need for community is greater than ever, I propose that we leave behind our current favored narrative about the Exodus, which can keep us trapped in victimization and victimizing, and move towards a different narrative—not one of divisions, but one of unity.
In order to do this, I suggest that we expand our Shavuot observance to a full week, dedicating each day to another level of Torah study, using Torah in the broadest sense. Texts will be chosen each year to expand upon our understanding of revelation and deepen our capacity to be vessels of Divine inspiration. This invitation doesn’t require us to believe in God in any traditional sense of the word, although one might. Rather, it’s an invitation to examine and deepen into our relationship with that which is greater than ourselves and meaningful to each one of us—humanity, the planet, the Universe or Goddix in any way that we might define It. Study sessions will focus on the theme of Revelation and Relationship, and may incorporate written texts, as well as music and art, along with meditation and movement, from yoga and tai chi to dancing. During these sessions, we may also create stories, prayers, poems, songs, dances and art that emerge from our studies. Gardening, flower-arranging, cooking classes, hiking and time at a mikvah (while fresh-flowing water still exists) can also be part of our observance of this weeklong celebration, allowing us to engage all of our senses in deeply embodied ways.
The Seven Days of Shavuot
The First Day of Shavuot will be organized around reading, and studying texts and themes from the Torah and Tanakh that concern Divine Connection.
The Second Day of Shavuot will focus on texts and associated themes that come from the Talmud.
The Third Day of Shavuot will be devoted to relevant texts and themes from Midrash.
The Fourth Day of Shavuot will be devoted to texts and themes from Kabbalah and from all Jewish mystical texts.
The Fifth Day of Shavuot will feature texts and themes from our prayers, from our siddurim and other collections of liturgy.
The Sixth Day of Shavuot will be organized around Jewish writings from ancient and Medieval times until the beginning of the Enlightenment.
The Seventh Day of Shavuot will be organized around texts written by Jewish writers in the centuries since the Enlightenment, in all genres, secular and religious, from every Jewish community in the world, including novels, stories, poems, prayers, essays, films, etc.
New Shavuot Practices
In crafting new observances for Shavuot, I’m inviting us to tap into what seems deepest in this holiday in order to make it meaningful for those of us who are living in a new era, so that we’re not just remembering what was revealed at Sinai, but stepping into an awareness that we are a part of All That Is in every moment, and that It is revealing Itself to us always. If we are going to survive, we are going to need to new tools, new industries, new forms of community, and I invite you to consider Shavuot as a time in the year when you can open up to the Divine to receive information from It. I invite you to use this weeklong holiday as a time to meditate, pray, go inward and outward to seek guidance from The Universe. I invite you to embrace the promise of these words that Moses said in chapter 11 of the book of Numbers:
Would that all The Eternal’s people were prophets,
that The Eternal put Its spirit upon them.
What does it mean to be in the presence of the Divine? What does it mean to open ourselves up to receiving the information we will need to survive and to thrive? I believe that it’s a different experience for everyone, and in shifting our focus from the Us/Them Passover story, we can give ourselves the opportunity to tell new stories of oneness, union, unity, Oneness. For if we are going to heal our relationship with our only home—and with its Creator—we are going to have to remember that like trees, we are great connectors, both rooted in the earth and extending our branches out to the heavens.
In expanding Shavuot to a week, I imagine all of us embracing Moses’ request and opening up to it. And in my vision of a new and expanded Shavuot celebration, I imagine us balancing both communal and individual observance. Consider writing a collective contract with the people you study with—a new communal set of instructions to help define your goals for the coming year, perhaps to be read each time that you gather together, to be revisited and perhaps revised each Shavuot. Also consider writing a personal contract with God or the universe as part of your expanded Shavuot practice—a contract that will explore and explain why you are here and what your relationship is with the world. Feel that your contact, agreement and guidelines are alive within you, waiting to be discovered. You might say that this contract is what you incarnated to be and to do in this lifetime. Put your contract into words, during your walking time, meditation time and communal study time. It may have 10 items in it, 12 or just one that emerge from your week of exploring Revelation and Relationship, and which may become something that you read each day during the rest of the year, during Shabbat and at each festival—your personal contract with the Universe, a contract for keeping you in alignment with all that is, a new kind of prophetic document that you will revisit each year, and perhaps edit and alter as you change and deepen and grow in Holy Relationship.