Jewish World Review May 16, 2002/ 6 Sivan, 5762

Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shavuos: Custom-made
for American Jews? | Shevuos, one of the trio of Jewish "pilgrimage" festivals that also includes Passover and Sukkos, tends to get short shrift from most American Jews. Coming mere weeks after the Passover seders, perhaps the "first-fruits festival" simply finds many folks "holidayed out." Or maybe it's because Shevuos lacks any unusual "mitzvah-food" of its own like matzoh or ritual practice like building a sukkah. Whatever the reason, though, Judaism's summer-season holiday has come to be neglected by much of the American Jewish community.

And yet, the argument could convincingly be made that no other Jewish festival is more timely or urgent for unity-challenged American Jewry.

Because Jewish tradition associates the day of Shavuos (two days, actually, at least for those of us who don't live in Israel) with the Jews' acceptance of the Torah, the seminal event of Jewish peoplehood and unity. Shevuos, the Talmud and Jewish liturgy teach, marks the anniversary of the day our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai, in the Talmud's poignant words, "like one person, with one heart."

What unified our people at that time, Jewish sources make clear, was our forebears' unanimous stance vis-a-vis the essential Jewish mandate, the laws of the Torah -- a stance embodied in their immortal words: "Na'aseh v'nishma," "We will do and we will hear."

That phrase captures the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of G-d's will even amid a lack of "hearing," or understanding. "We will do Your will," they pledged in effect, "even if it is not our will, even if we are able to 'hear' it, even if it discomfits us."

Could anything be more antithetical to the American mindset? More diametric to the "what's in it for me?" mentality that we Americans, including we American Jews, take in with every breath?

Ours, after all, is a comfort-crazed society, fixated on having things, and on having them our way. And not only in the physical trappings of our lives but in our spiritual choices no less. How common it is these days to hear worshippers, Jewish ones as well, explaining their degree of observance, their choice of place of worship, even their religious affiliations, as born off something akin to coziness.

"I embrace this observance because it makes me feel good."

"I so enjoy the services there."

"That liturgy makes me feel involved, important."

"I'm most comfortable (or happy, or content, or fulfilled) as a (fill in the blank).

But Judaism has never been about comfort, enjoyment or even personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter surely emerges from a G-d-centered life). It has, rather, been about listening to G-d, not only when His commands sit well with us but even - indeed, especially - when they don't. Jews, after all, have died, proudly and profoundly uncomfortably, for their faith.

Thus, Shevuos, which this year is observed from sunset May 16 til nightfall of May 18, really deserves to be a "front and center" holiday for us American Jews. Its central theme speaks to us, loudly, clearly and directly. The Jewish summer-festival reminds us about the engine of true Jewish unity, that it lies in the realization that Judaism is not about what we'd like G-d to do for us, but rather about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do for Him.

Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America. Comment by clicking here.


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