While reflecting on Shavuot’s arrival, I was somewhat surprised to recognize that this holiday is one that often slips by me without much celebrated observation. Even with 15 years at an Orthodox Jewish Day school, I don’t have many strong memories tied to celebrating Shavuot like I do for so many of the other Jewish holidays. Considering it is one of the “Shalosh Regalim” (three major pilgrimage holidays), and it commemorates the momentous receiving of the Torah, I am now rather amazed that this holiday is not more prominent in my Jewish identity… and I don’t think I’m the only one.
I decided to review a bit about this somewhat neglected-by-me holiday to relearn its essence. Shavuot is a holiday without a lot of mitzvot (commandments). A number of minhaggim (customs) have developed around it, but otherwise, we are not instructed to do much of anything for it. Very interesting considering all the laws and vivid symbols our other holidays involve.
Some rabbis say that this is because the Torah is above symbolism, beyond depiction or labels. By accepting the Torah, it is thought that we agreed to merge our lives with a new reality; accepting a union, like a marriage, with a power and perspective bigger than our small self-identities. More than simply a text, it is believed that by living with the Torah, we tap into something far beyond words and stories and plug into life in a deeper and more meaningful way.
Well, living with anyone can have its difficulties. Sometimes, things run smoothly with love and appreciation, and sometimes, we are forced up against uncomfortable situations that trigger vulnerable or painful places in ourselves and make us want to turn and run in the other direction. But herein lies the beauty and the challenge of working in relationship: we are given the opportunity to witness our many sides and honor our individual nature. Without the mirrors of relationships, we could have no idea about our likes and dislikes, where those tendencies may have developed, or which of those aspects we feel continue to serve us in useful ways.
With the Torah, the Jewish people have a shared partner across the ages that they can bump up against time and time again. I have definitely realized that throughout my years on this planet, while every letter of these texts stays the same, each time I return to it, I see it differently because I have changed. The way I view the words on the page can tell me more about the lessons I have learned in my own life than about the lives of the characters in the stories. In a sense, by engaging periodically with the words of the Torah, we have our own selves reflected back to us time and time again, each time from a slightly different location on the path of our lives.
So, in honor of the holiday of Shavuot, let us honor the beautiful messiness of this life of relationships: to our Jewishness, to our communities, and to our selves. It’s not always peaceful and it’s not always easy, but it allows us the opportunity to awaken to life; let us recommit to stay with whatever arises.
I’ve really loved learning about meditation techniques using Torah texts. Check out this one offered by Rabbi David Cooper.