A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 5.29.2020

Each of the Three Festivals on the Jewish calendar has an agricultural connection.  Passover, a spring holiday, was associated with the barley harvest, the “first fruits” to be gathered.  Sukkot celebrates the end of the harvest, and hence the agricultural year, in the Land of Israel.  And Shavu’ot is a celebration of the wheat harvest. Shavu’ot, however, is the only one of the three festivals that does not have a Bible-connected historical purpose; Passover, of course, celebrates our liberation from Egypt, and Sukkot our wandering in the desert.  Consequently, the sages tied Shavu’ot to a third historical event: the giving of the Torah and the revelation at Sinai.  One could argue that this makes Shavu’ot the most important of the festivals; after all, what could possibly surpass the giving of the Torah in importance?

Indeed, the counting of the Omer sets Shavu’ot up as a kind of grand climax to a process that began on the second night of Passover. Liberation, the rabbis are telling us, is not complete until we have received the word of God.  And how are we to receive it?  Directly from the mouth of God.  What’s more, the sages say, all Jews who ever were or ever will be experienced revelation, tying all Jews, for all times, to a common purpose and a common fate.  Notably, this includes all converts to Judaism, making the bold declaration that Judaism is not a religion of ethnicity or blood-line, but rather of faith in the One God and in the One God’s Torah.

The mystics of the Zohar established the practice of studying through from evening until dawn on the first night of Shavuot.  The Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot – the “established order of study for the eve of Shavu’ot” was meant to be a corrective of sorts: the rabbis held that on the night before the revelation at Sinai, most people went to sleep, which might be seen as a slight to God. God was, after all, about to deliver to them the most precious conceivable gift.  Shavu’ot is also seen as the wedding day between God and Israel, and so likewise, the rabbis ask, “How could the Israelites have slept the night before such a momentous event?”  The generation of the desert, thank God, had enough merit on their own to be seen in the best possible light.  The sages explain that they wanted to be as awake as possible in the morning, so that they would be able to absorb every word of Torah, and so they slept.  Fair enough.

Our Shavu’ot Zoom services will include a study session for Shavu’ot tonight – a mini-Tikkun – featuring a session by our dear friend Rabbi Sue Oren and another taught by me.  This will take place after evening services (note service times above).  We will also be celebrating the concept of conversion to Judaism and acceptance of the Torah by reading Megillat Rut – the Book of Ruth – on Shabbat, the second day of Shavu’ot.

Because we are not having formal readings from the Torah scroll, we will be foregoing the recitation of the liturgical poem Akdamut Milin this year (I’m sure we’ll sneak the melody in somewhere though, to keep it fresh in our minds).  This saddens me – I love the story behind Akdamut, and I cannot recite it without hearing the voice of Rabbi Pomerantz ztz”l, whose 11th yahrzeit we commemorate on the festival this year.  Rabbi Pomerantz’ influence continues to permeate the walls (actual and virtual) of EMJC and his memory continues to be a constant source of blessing to us.

I hope you’ll join us for services tonight, Friday, and Saturday.  Between the reading of the Ten Commandments, the recitation of the Book of Ruth, and the beautiful nusach (traditional prayer modes) of the Three Festivals, Shavu’ot offers some liturgical delights.

If you really want to make up for the somnolence of our ancestors at Sinai, after our Tikkun is over, visit one of the many all-night online offerings that are available, including one from the Rabbinical Assembly (https://www.rabbinicalassembly.org/story/schedule-tikkun-leil-shavuot) and one from JCC Manhattan (http://tikkun.jccmanhattan.org/).

May we all experience ongoing redemption, and may the words of Torah be ever on our tongues.

Wishing you all a Shabbat shalom u’mevorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat, and a chag same’ach,

Rabbi Sam Levine