Shavuot as restorative practice and the way out

The promise of Shabbat and the holiday of Shavuot is peeking around the corner this evening, it is just a day away! Shabbat rolls in Friday night, and Shabbat rolls into Shavuot on Saturday night, the holiday where we celebrate the revelation of the Torah, receiving Torah as a People.

If you’ve been to the beit midrash, you’ll know that one of my favorite modalities of Jewish tradition is the compression of time: mythical Torah time and characters layer onto the cycle of our seasons, which overlaps with the holidays, the cycles of the moon, and what we seem to think about Divinity. All these threads come alive at once through the portals of holidays, or Torah readings, or the change of the season. Shavuot is no different: it is the compression of a harvest festival with the harvesting of Torah with the wandering of the Jews in the desert standing at the foot of Mount Sinai.

It is that last layer I am most infatuated with this year. It is taught that every Jew who ever was or ever will be was at the foot of Mt. Sinai when Torah was received—and if our tradition tells us correctly, any comrade or ally who has seen their liberation bound up with Jewish liberation was there too. 

But what was happening at the foot of the mountain wasn’t all good. In fact, it is the reason that today we celebrate the holiday by spending the first night not sleeping, but studying words of holy Torah. 

See, when Moshe (Moses) was at the top of the mountain, receiving Torah, writing each and every hook and prickle of the letters or watching God do it, the rest of us at the base of the mountain were misbehaving.

The Israelites were getting restless, feared that the whole “liberation” and “crossing the sea as if on dry land” and “promise of a home” was a farce. They doubted God. They couldn’t hold on to God, couldn’t trust that a thing you couldn’t see, touch, or taste was real. And so they begged Aharon (Aaron), Moshe’s brother, to build them a golden calf.

Moshe descended the mountain with the 10 commandments carved into stone, saw what these Israelites had done, and shattered the word of God on the ground.

So on Shavuot, we attend “Tikkun Leyl Shavuot.” Tikkun, like in tikkun olam, is a corrective. The eve of Shavuot, instead of going to bed like nothing ever happened, many will stay up all night studying words of Torah. Making up for the catastrophe of the destruction of the first 10 commandments, the construction of the golden calf. We are all transported back to the base of the mountain on erev Shavuot (the eve of Shavuot) and there we have a chance.

Shavuot teaches us that we have a chance to make things right. That when history offers us a chance to repeat itself, for us to make the same mistakes, we can say no. That we can implement ritual to remind us to stay present in our bodies, in the world around us, in the choices we can decide to make differently.

This Shavuot the tragedy of the world surrounds my heart. The massacre in Gaza at the time of Mattan Torah (receiving of Torah), and at the time of Ramadan, the first revelation of the Quran to Mohammad, leaves me wondering what must be revealed to us so we might learn from the past.

Shavuot offers one answer, one hope. That we can learn to not make the same mistakes twice. That instead of being traumatized year after year that we destroyed Torah, lost faith, almost lost it all, we find a corrective. Shavuot helps us believe that there is a way out of this calamity. Shavuot reminds us that we were all at Sinai, all of us, and that we have the ability to choose again and again to recommit to the paths forward, and to learn from our collective past. Our rituals move us from fear and scarcity and shame to greater learning and truth. May it be so this year, too.

Shabbat shalom and chag sameach,

May you receive the sweetest Torah at Sinai, may it be a revelation.