Shavuot is a funny holiday. You would think since it “commemorates the giving of Torah at Mt. Sinai” it should be the biggest bash of the year, but somehow it gets second billing to other headliners in the Jewish calendar. Passover is a great action narrative, celebrating the New Year is a no-brainer, but Revelation—the idea of a cataclysmic experience of Truth—is a hard thing to get our heads around.
We tell our kids about Moses and the Ten Commandments; we stay up all night studying Torah to show our appreciation for its gifts; we eat cheesecake; but the whole concept of “commemoration” suggests that Revelation is something that happened back then. Long ago. We acknowledge that the Torah came down to us through the generations one way or another, so this is the origin story, stuck in the mists of time—not something pressing into the contemporary dimensions of our lives.
Yet there is another traditional strain of our theology that runs counter to this idea of “pastness.” It says that the soul of every Jew—past, present, and future through all time—was there at Sinai for that moment when all was revealed. This transhistorical notion is compelling to me as a metaphor, but taking it seriously requires a mysticism that I can’t say I possess.
If we take a moment and play it out, however; if we imagine ourselves all there, would we pay attention? Or would it be more like Merle Feld’s famous poem, “We All Stood Together”:
I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me there
It seems like every time I want to write
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
When the sound and fury started would we still be trying to get the last errands done? Would we be texting through it? Whispering to our friends in the back row? Would we remember what we saw without videoing it on an iPhone? A rabbi I know suggested to me that the experience of Sinai is not one of a single point in time, but a presence that is constant—as though it were streaming 24/7—if we could only quiet ourselves long enough to listen.
I am part of a Rosh Hodesh group (a group of women who meet at the start of each new Hebrew month to study and reflect together) and we met last week, a few days before Shavuot. We tried to play out the fantasy for a moment, of being present at Sinai—what questions would you want answered? What would you hope would be revealed? Each of us put pen to paper and wrote questions down. It is fruitful in and of itself to actually have to articulate for yourself what the most pressing questions of your existence are. What resulted was marvelously varied, from the most universal expressions of angst—“why do people constantly strive to oppress, to make others less than?”—to the most intensely personal—“can I go this deep? Do I have it in me?”
For me, the question you’d think I most want answered—“Will I recover and be healthy? What is my fate with this disease?”—is not the one I found myself asking. Even in my fantasy, Revelation is not the same as prophecy—even in a scenario of perfect vision, where you see the whole picture of reality, the future has still yet to be written. Instead, my question was, “what is my purpose? What is my letter of Torah to write?”
This comes from yet a third strand in our tradition, one that suggests that Torah is not limited to the Pentateuch, or even all the codified biblical writings, it includes all the oral tradition, all the commentary, and it is dynamic, ever being elaborated, constantly unfolding and unfinished. There is also a notion, from the Baal Shem Tov, that every Jew is a letter in the scroll—every person has their unique piece of truth to contribute in this world, the letter that no one else could write but them. The mission is to discover it, to unearth it, to express it. Isn’t this the most urgent thing to know: why am I here? and what here can be done by only me?
The idea of accessing Revelation as a blinding-light, truth event is a compelling one. Not the less so since the work of figuring ourselves out can be so piecemeal, so contradictory, so beset by interruptions and distractions. But there is one central thing that the Sinai story tells me: we’re in this together. We are not searching for illumination alone; it’s a communal deal. If each of us is a letter, then meaning only comes once those letters are strung together in words, sentences, stories. No letter makes sense on its own. We have an individual imperative to make our contribution, but the big picture can only be formed communally.
Our CBS community spent Shavuot and the long weekend at Camp Newman, and it was pretty glorious to have all that together time in the sun and the green hills, with our kids roaming unsupervised and meals together kibbutz-style. We enjoyed how freeing it is to shed a bit of our nuclear-family insularity and forge new bonds as a community. If there was any revelation (small ‘r’) I took away from the weekend, it was this: how community holds us, sustains us, as we stumble towards figuring out who we are and what we are doing here.