Shavuot: Sharing the Blessings

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shavuot

Dear Friends:

Hag Sameach! The regular Torah reading is put off for a week, in most
traditional synagogues, because of the second day of the holiday of
Shavuot. The holiday Torah reading is Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17, plus
a maftir from the book of Numbers. The main part of the Dvarim/
Deuteronomy reading is a review of the holidays in chapter 16,
including the holiday we’re about to celebrate:

“You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when
the sickle is first put to the standing grain. Then you shall observe
the Feast of Weeks for the Lord your God, offering your freewill
contribution according as the Lord your God has blessed you. You
shall rejoice before the Lord your God with your son and daughter,
your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the
stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst, at the place
where the Lord your God will choose to establish The Divine Name.
Bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt, and take care to obey
these laws.” (Dvarim/Deut. 16: 9-11)

OK, so far, so good: we count the omer for seven weeks, starting at
Pesach and then have a holiday of agricultural blessing in Jerusalem.
In post-Biblical Israel, Shavuot became the holiday of “Matan Torah,”
the Giving of the Torah, which makes calendrical sense, since it’s
some weeks after leaving Egypt that the Israelites stood at Sinai. One
way to connect the two meanings of the holiday (blessings of the land
and giving of the Torah) is by noticing that even in Biblical times, a
holy time had a distinctly ethical dimension to it. Notice in verse 11
that we are to include the poor and powerless in our celebrations; we
might even say that precisely at a time when we are thanking God for
our blessings, we must share those blessings with others if they are
to have any spiritual or religious meaning at all.

Rashi picks up on the moral teaching of verse 11 and gives it a
profound theological “twist:”

” the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. . . . [God
says:] These are My four, corresponding to your four, [namely,] ‘Your
son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant.’ If
you shall gladden Mine, I will gladden yours. ”

This interpretation, which Rashi gets from older sources, is based on
the symmetry of who is included in a householder’s celebration: if the
“you” is the head of the house, then the children and servants are
part of the family, as it were. The Levite (who had no land holding),
the orphan, the widow, and the stranger (i.e., the non-citizen) were
not part of anybody’s household- therefore, they are part of God’s
family, as it were! Rashi’s text has God saying: if you take care of
Mine- that is, the powerless and lonely- then I’ll take care of yours,
the folks who live with you.

We don’t have to believe that there is a direct connection of Divine
causality between our deeds and our welfare to see the truth of
Rashi’s comment. Our acts of generosity, inclusion, and compassion
speak to the very nature of a person’s soul; one is loving, or not. We
don’t celebrate only for our personal pleasure- that’s not a holy day,
that’s just a party. Rather, we give thanks for our abundance by
sharing it in a life of generosity which is itself a blessing for
ourselves and others. If Shavuot is only about grasping Torah
intellectually, or only about celebrating the arrival of summer, then
we’ve missed the point: the Torah was given so that the world would be
healed through lovingkindness. Now, that’s something to celebrate.

Hag Sameach, and Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

PS- as usual, you’ll find a summary of the holiday Torah reading here,
plus many articles relating to the holiday in the links box on the
left:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/holidays/Shavuot/TO_Shavuot_Community/
Isaacs_Readings_402.htm

and the text of the Torah portions and haftarot here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

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