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5783 Shavuot

May 25, 2023
5 Sivan 5783
Erev Shavuot
49th day of the Omer

Dear Friends,

We are about to celebrate the festival of Shavuot, an agricultural pilgrimage festival for the barley harvest. For many, these next three days would be filled with eating dairy products, recalling those we love who are no longer living, studying together, and hearing the Ten Commandments read from the Torah.

We will be studying, praying, and eating together tonight with our friends at Riverdale Temple and gathering together at Untermyer Park on the second day. This year, you will be on your own for the first day of Shavuot, free to find your own way of observing this holiday. On some level that seems quite appropriate since Shavuot is a holiday whose identity is not as strong as that of our two other pilgrimage festivals (Sukkot and Pesach). I invite you to use that first day to tease out what this spring holiday means to you.

Along with the Torah reading which includes the Ten Commandments, we have a haftorah that is the vision of a prophet. Sinai is a startling moment, with the people arrayed around the mountain, each experiencing the moment in their unique fashion. We can only imagine that the pyrotechnics of this moment were beyond anything that the people had experienced to date. The text intimates that they heard the lightning, as well as saw the thunder.

Sinai, despite our understanding that each individual can experience the same event differently, was a communal event and a moment of shared revelation. But then we have the haftorah (Ezekiel 1-28), which is one man’s vision. In reading it we may wonder what kind of hallucinogenic he was on. Here is an excerpt:

In the thirtieth year, on the fifth day of the fourth month, when I was in the community of exiles by the Chebar Canal, the heavens opened and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month—it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin— the word of GOD came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, by the Chebar Canal, in the land of the Chaldeans. And the hand of GOD came upon him there. I looked, and lo, a stormy wind came sweeping out of the north—a huge cloud and flashing fire, surrounded by a radiance; and in the center of it, in the center of the fire, a gleam as of amber. In the center of it were also the figures of four creatures. And this was their appearance:…

…That was the appearance of the semblance of the Presence of GOD.
When I beheld it, I flung myself down on my face. And I heard the voice of someone speaking.

The account goes from the third person to the first person. It is a personal account of a vision. I invite you to read it.

All of us this leads us and gives each of us permission to understand and experience that which is Divine, that which is holy in the world, according to our different perceptions. Again and again, we are reminded that our tradition is one where the way in which we experience wonder, awe, and holiness is up to us. Yet as the Ten Commandments so eloquently remind us, the ways in which we behave toward one another matters most of all.

Creating a society that is just, kind, and caring is an ongoing project -- the project of a lifetime. Having rules to guide us is an aid, but not an answer. The way we each behave is up to us and the way in which we experience wonder and awe is a uniquely personal journey.

As I so often reply when someone asks me for a definitive Jewish answer about how something is done, my reply is always the same: “it depends”. It depends on who you ask and who is doing the asking. The Jewish journey is both communal and solitary. We always bring ourselves and our experiences to our understanding of that journey. For some of us, that journey is about community and ethical behavior; for others, an intimate divinity is what we seek on our journey, and for others it is a transcendent Divinity. The journey is different for each of us, even as it was at Sinai (the midrash teaches that every Jew who ever was or ever will be was at Sinai). Take the time on this Shavuot to marvel at the wonder of this time of year, to take joy in community, and to eat something that brings you pleasure.

Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Linda Shriner-Cahn

Fri, June 21 2024 15 Sivan 5784