Shavuot is called “zeman matan Torahtenu,” the season of the giving of the Torah – interestingly not “the season of the receiving of the Torah.” That’s because the heart of the Torah may have been given on Mt. Sinai, but the receiving of the Torah happens we are open to hearing the Torah’s teachings, which can happen any day, not just on Shavuot.
Celebrating Shavuot, “the Feast of Weeks,” in Jerusalem is an amazing experience. Truth be told, for most other holidays there is not such a big difference being in Jerusalem than being in America. On the High Holidays, just like in America, it’s a long day in the synagogue, except here everything is in Hebrew and services are generally less creative – not so much use of things like choirs, not so much explanation of the prayers. I find I actually prefer “American-style” High Holiday services. Chanuka is very similar to America, except you see menorahs everywhere you go. Passover, being a home oriented holiday is also not so different here – you get together with friends or family for a seder. It’s nice that there are so many kosher for Passover restaurants, but the holiday itself is not so different.
But Shavuot—wow! What a difference.
For most Jews in America, Shavuot is not a big deal. Many barely know it exists, and most would certainly rank it lower in importance than Chanuka or Purim – which is a mistake, because Shavuot is a much more important holiday on a religious basis. It is one of the three “no-work” pilgrimage festivals. Shavuot is mostly celebrated by staying up all night studying Torah (called “tikkun leil Shavuot”) and eating dairy foods.
Ever since the first time I experienced an all-night study session at Palo Alto’s congregation Kol Emeth, staying up all night and participating in a dawn service with the reading of the Ten Commandments from the Torah has always been one of the spiritual highlights of the year for me. I’ve probably been to ten Shavuot all-night study sessions in the US or Canada. For the last six years, as a congregational rabbi, it was my responsibility to organize the sessions. Whether at my shul, or from the days before I became a rabbi, the experience was somewhat similar. At 9:30 or 10pm when we start, there is a crowd of 20 or 30 people. By the time we get to 4am and close to the time for services we would be very lucky indeed if we had the required minyan (ten adult Jews) to be able to read Torah. One year there were just two of us who managed to last all night, and we went and prayed at dawn on the rooftop of an apartment building overlooking the Pacific Ocean. An interesting spiritual experience, but fairly solitary.
In Jerusalem, on the other hand, there is world class learning going on all night long in your choice of languages, at locations all over the city. This year I chose to go “tikkun-hopping,” sampling different places around the city. At 11pm I went to Mizmor L’David (aka “the Carlebach Minyan” in Arnona) and studied with Rachel Adelman. She brought a fascinating comparison of the story of Judah and Tamar and the story of Ruth. The parallels are fascinating and seem obvious once pointed out – but it never occurred to me before! The story of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot, is in a way a “tikkun,” a correction or healing for the story of the Judah and Tamar. Boaz, the lead male in the Ruth story, is much more of a mensch than Judah. Although at least Judah steps up and takes responsibility at the end.
At 12:30am I went to the Hartman Institute and studied with Rabbi Donniel Hartman. At 1am, the Hartman Beit Midrash was filled pretty close to capacity – a crowd of several hundred people. R. Hartman was talking about Rambam’s approach to mitzvot – and he pointed out an interesting difference between Judaism and Christianity. Judaism, at least for observant Jews, is largely driven by the observance of mitzvot, the commandments. Christianity is driven by salvation through Jesus. Rambam said that the point of mitzvot is to refine us, make us better people, and that the ultimate goal is that following the mitzvot becomes completely internalized done for it’s own sake, without necessarily even thinking of God. He pointed out that while many people view doing mitzvot as essentially a path for connecting with God, it is entirely possible to choose to follow the mitzvot without believing in God at all – one could follow them because they agree with Rambam that they improve a person, or because one wants to be part of the community. On the other hand, salvation through Jesus makes no sense whatsoever without God. In essence, it is possible to be a “good Jew” without believing in God, but impossible to be a Christian without believing in God.
At 2am I was still at Hartman, listening to Chanan Maziah and Avishai Bar-Asher talk (in Hebrew) about the tension between “Kriat shema v’shmiat kra,” between reciting verses from the Torah, basically liturgically, and between understanding the text. An interesting reminder that we use Torah in many ways beyond learning from it.
One of the things that impressed me in that session – and there were probably 100 people there – is that the crowd was mostly native Hebrew speakers. At the two shuls I regularly go to, Moreshet Avraham and Mizmor L’David, they do sermons and classes in Hebrew, but the truth is that the vast majority of the people there would understand it better in English. They use Hebrew to make a Zionist statement, and as outreach to try and attract native Hebrew speakers. At the program at Hartman, they were speaking Hebrew because it’s what the audience understood best!
After light refreshments at 3am, I headed over to the Conservative Yeshiva. At 3am there were hardly any cars on the street – but lots of people wearing kippot walking from one learning venue to another. There were four separate study groups going with about dozen people in each; I sat in on one that was taking a look at prophecy. Sometimes we complain about the end of prophecy – “if only we really knew what God wanted…”—yet we studied texts that highlight the point that even prophets who knew what God wanted were not always enthusiastic about going along with God’s program.
After more light refreshments at 4am it was time to head to the Kotel, the Western Wall, for prayers. And this is one of the most amazing sights for me. If you had no idea where the Kotel was, at 4am on Shavuot morning you have no problem finding it. Just follow the mobs of people streaming toward the Kotel from every direction. It’s almost eerie. Hundreds of people walking through the silent deserted streets of Jerusalem, through the Jaffa Gate, down through the dark and shuttered Arab shuk, through security, and there, instead of barely a minyan, are thousands of Jews who have been up all night studying packed into the Western Wall Plaza. What a sight! I continued through the Plaza and went down to Robinson’s Arch for the Conservative/Masorti service.
If you read the link above for Robinson’s Arch you’ll see that the Reform and the Women of the Wall rejected using that location for services; Women of the Wall are quoted as saying it’s not a suitable location because of the rocks strewn around. Personally, I find Robinson’s Arch an incredibly powerful place to pray, more so than the plaza above, davka because of the rocks. The tumbled rocks strewn around are a potent reminder of the destruction of the Temple nearly 2000 years ago; a reminder that we are still praying in a Jerusalem that is not rebuilt, that is not whole, that is not at peace. We started our service around 5am. I had the privilege of being called for the third aliyah, so I was still standing next to the Torah for the fourth aliyah, when we read the Ten Commandments. To be standing at that place at dawn, watching the Ten Commandments being read from a Torah scroll, in the “altered state of consciousness” that comes with having stayed up all night – well, what can I say, it was a fantastic experience.
The Musaf reading for Shavuot morning is the same as what we usually have for holidays or Rosh Chodesh – a recitation of the sacrifices that were offered on that day. Hearing those words however felt quite different knowing I was standing about 200 yards away from where those sacrifices were once actually offered.
Shavuot in Jerusalem is definitely a time when one can feel the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, dwelling among us. May we all bask in the light of that Divine Presence each and every day, wherever in the world we live!