Thursday June 1st 2006.
Tonight I shall deliver a five hour lecture, from midnight to dawn, just as I do on the holyday of Shavuot each year. I am privileged to have been invited as the guest rabbi to a dynamic Orthodox congregation in suburban Washington D.C. Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, is the Hebrew name for the holiday often known as Pentecost.
In spite of my best efforts tonight, some in the audience may quit listening before I quit speaking--it is tough to stay awake till sunrise listening to a teacher. I think it may be easier for the teacher to stay awake. On this night, that on which God revealed himself on Mount Sinai and gave His people the Torah 3,318 years ago, the custom is to study the Torah all night instead of sleeping.
Shavuot plays a crucial role in the daily lives of Jews. For instance, every circumcision of a Jewish male infant commemorates God's gift of the Torah, because without that Scriptural commandment, it is extremely unlikely that this minor operation would have been so consistently performed on every Jewish male.
Every time a Jew politely declines bacon with his morning eggs, he is commemorating the holiday on which that rule was given too--Shavuot. Almost every Jewish couple marries "according to the laws of Moses and Israel" and thus also commemorates Shavuot, the day on which those laws were presented.
It is thus puzzling that Shavuot, the day on which God presented the Bible, gets trumped in popularity by holidays that wouldn't even be celebrated at all were it not for that Bible. For example, many more American Jews celebrate Passover than celebrate Shavuot. Many more Jews celebrate Chanukah than celebrate Shavuot. It is hard to think of a holiday bearing greater religious significance than Shavuot; it is also hard to think of a Jewish holiday that gets less attention. Just try asking a Jewish acquaintance about Shavuot--you're likely to get a puzzled look in return. Why are to many Jews indifferent to Shavuot?
One clue is that Shavuot is the only Jewish festival with not even a single symbol. Passover has its ubiquitous Matzo or unleavened bread. Chanukah has its menorah and candle lighting ceremony. Shavuot however, can be observed only by direct interaction with the Torah itself since no substitute symbol exists.
Another clue to explain the obscurity of Shavuot is that the Jewish observances that are most popular are those that lend themselves to secularization. For instance, Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed by more Jews than Shavuot. Yet it was established under the entirely secular auspices of the Israeli Parliament on April 12, 1951. It is a day that offers significance and meaning without demanding that anybody evaluates his relationship with God. It doesn't even demand that anyone recognize or even concede the existence of God. One of the more disturbing themes that has become an occasional part of Holocaust Remembrance Day's secular liturgy is questioning the very existence of God. This disturbs many of us who keep alive the well documented recollection of how many Jews went to the gas chambers with heads held high and these Biblical words on their lips "Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is thy God, the Lord is One."
Oddly enough, even Passover allows a secular observance. For many American Jews it has become little more than a family reunion; the dinner table distinguished chiefly by a symbolic box of matzo and a little more wine than usual. Any discussion, if it takes place at all, tends to focus on the universal aspects of freedom rather than on the Almighty's role in redemption. Clearly, keeping it secular keeps it comfortable.
Chanukah is equally comfortable since it too allows a secular expression. Bring light into the world by the symbolic candle lighting, exchange gifts and celebrate the unusual Jewish military victory against the Greeks. This way, nobody need be disconcerted by divisive ideas about the spiritual tension between secular Athens and holy Jerusalem. The religious nature of the Macabee's struggle can be ignored because there are safe symbols to preoccupy us. It is such bad form to bring God into everything, isn't it?
Shavuot however, is very awkward. There is simply no secular rationale for celebrating it. Getting together for Shavuot observance is a tacit confession that one believes in God and in the Torah He gave his servant Moses. Unlike Passover which can be welcomed as a respectable endorsement of an amorphous kind of freedom and unlike Chanukah that can be celebrated as a kind of "Jewish Christmas," Shavuot presents a problem. There is no option but to celebrate it as the day that God gave us Jews 613 rules to live by. What fun!
Of course Shavuot enjoys marginal popularity. The self indulgent credo of a secular society is "reject authority." Popular culture champions the individualist who does nothing at all that he doesn't really want to do. "Nobody gives me orders" bellows the hero as he thumps his chest. "I'll wear what I want" whines the teenager in a torn T-shirt. Eventually the majority of a population becomes indoctrinated to the absurd notion that doing anything that you don't really want to do is somehow a betrayal of your true self.
Without God, a secular society gradually loses its sense that there is greatness in service to others. If serving others is menial then don't be surprised by gradual deterioration of marriage and families. After all, few men voluntarily wish to restrict their sexual options and still fewer wish to dedicate themselves to supporting a woman and her offspring. Men marry out of a deep awareness that overcoming the selfish instinct is the path to greatness. There are few acts of greater generosity for a man than marrying a woman, supporting her and their family and remaining married to her. A society well on its way to decline is a society whose men can be heard to say "No woman is going to tell me what to do."
Furthermore, a people whose men can no longer respond to an order with the words "Yes sir!" and no longer take pride in turning in a job well done, is a people with a terminal economy. Sometimes the most important lesson of one's first job is nothing more than learning how to subdue one's childish instinct to tell the boss to go and jump in the lake. The road to greater responsibility is learning that one can only acquire authority by being able to accept it.
One of the main differences between a nation comfortable in its Judeo-Christian heritage and one struggling to reject it is how its people accept authority. Do they manufacture bumper stickers that proclaim "question authority!" or do they train children to obey parents, students to venerate teachers, husbands to revere their wives, and soldiers to follow their commanders?
Nazi Germany is always trotted out as an example of the dangers of unquestioning obedience to orders. They called it the "fuehrer principle." We in America, however, may have gone too far in the other direction. With no ability at all to recognize any authority over us, we lose functionality in almost every area that a healthy civilization needs. That ability to recognize and be comfortable with authority is most reliably nurtured within a religious environment. When a society abolishes its religious underpinnings, one of the first casualties will be the ability of its people to accept authority. Not surprisingly, the movement will commence with children rejecting parents and their values.
Shavuot serves as an annual infusion of "authority medicine." The holiday possesses little else around which we can structure a symbolism and an escape from the uncomfortable reality of our Divine Boss. The reality of the Bible itself helps us learn to subjugate our instincts and restrain our appetites. It starts with banishing sleep for one entire night while poring over the pages of that book, God's great gift to humanity and the foundation of lasting civilization.
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