Unity and Humility:  Ancient Values Needed Today

Beginning this Saturday night, we celebrate Shavuot, the second of our three “Pilgrimage Festivals.”  In notable ways, Shavuot is the least popular and least interesting of these three Biblical celebrations, as it includes no intriguing rituals like those practiced on Passover and Sukkot.  It’s celebrated entirely in the synagogue with worship services and has no home-based customs at all.  There’s oddly very little that’s tangible about Shavuot for parents to transmit to children.  No wonder that many in the non-Orthodox world aren’t even aware that we’re about to celebrate a major Jewish holiday.

There is a great deal, however, that Shavuot can teach us about our lives today.  While the Bible defines Shavuot exclusively as a harvest holiday on which a special offering was made in the ancient Temple exactly seven weeks after the start of Passover (hence the name “Shavuot,” Hebrew for “weeks”), after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the Rabbinic sages transformed the occasion into the celebration of the anniversary of the “Revelation” when God introduced Himself to the Israelite nation at Mt. Sinai.  Customs such as reading the Ten Commandments and the story of the Revelation from the Torah (Exodus chapter 19-20), and chanting the Book of Ruth, ostensibly a story about one woman’s deep devotion to the values of Torah, were made a part of celebrating Shavuot.

The Talmudic sages taught that Shavuot opens our eyes to two important values:  humility and unity.  We learn about humility from the observation that the Torah was given to the Israelites in the desert.  Why the desert and not the Land of Israel, ask the sages?  The great medieval commentator Rashi wrote that the Torah was given at Sinai so that a person “will make himself like a desert,” namely a place that inspires humility.  A desert is cold and vast and unpredictable.  Being in the desert, where we are away from familiar surroundings, can make a person feel dependent on the whims of nature and not entirely in control of what happens to us.  The realization that our fate and fortunes are dependent on factors beyond our control is the beginning of humility.  And a cogent argument could be made that humility- the notion that we are have much to learn and gain from others and that human beings depend on each other not only to thrive but to survive- lies at the very foundation of human existence.

Regarding unity, we read in the Revelation story that “Israel encamped at the foot of the mountain.” Interestingly, the Hebrew uses the singular form of the verb (he, not they, encamped). Citing Rashi again, he notes the odd use of the singular verb to describe a multitude of people, and writes: “In that moment, the Israelites were united with one mind and one heart.” Being united invited God’s presence.

Can the Jewish people be united? Can the denominations of North American Judaism live peacefully with one another, expressing mutual respect, tolerance and understanding that we each legitimately hear the voice of God in our own way?  Can Israelis and North American Jews find common ground so that the State of Israel can truly become a spiritual home to all of world Jewry?  Recent events, especially in the often-tense relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, spark concern that unity is more elusive than ever.

Along comes Shavuot, the lesser known and least popular of the major Biblical holidays, to remind us that unity and humility, two values that are imbedded in this festival, are inextricably bound to one another.  If we can embrace humility as a core value, then we can reach for unity.

The quality of our lives, from our experience as Jews to our relationship with Israel to our national politics and the direction America is heading, demands that we do just that.

I invite you to take part in our Shavuot celebration at Oheb Shalom.   Click here for the schedule and details.  The holiday begins on Saturday, May 19 @ 9:00 PM with a service and study session on the topic of Is Lying Ever Ethical?