As the UK ‘lockdown’ begins to ease, here is a reflection on the meaning of Shavuot as we experience it in this time of pandemic.
Many of us have been counting 7 days and 7 weeks since the 2nd night of Passover – in anticipation of Shavuot, the Jewish festival that commemorates the giving of the 10 Commandments.
As Moshe, toward the end of his life, told the young generation of Israelites who had survived wandering in the desert (Deut. 4:33-34), ‘Did ever a people hear the voice of G-d speaking out of the midst of fire, as you have, and lived?’ The awesome experience of being in the Divine Presence at Sinai after escaping oppression in Egypt, catalyzed our ancestors into becoming a distinct nation, with 10 categories of responsibilities to the Almighty and to each other.
But sustainability isn’t accomplished by words alone. The Jewish people needed a place and practices to experience G-d’s presence every day and a code of behaviour to ensure we were looking after each other properly.
Following the initial shock and fear that COVID-19 induced, we realized things would get worse before they got better. With reluctant acceptance, we assessed and adapted communal life, learning that although we couldn’t practice as usual we could find new ways to connect. Communities shifted to virtual gatherings, to pray together, celebrate together, to reach out to one another, to study, sing, and mourn together.
Once we had settled into our adapted ‘temporary’ reality, we reconnected with our community partners, people of all faiths and backgrounds, and realized that even when we are isolated at home, we can come together to do small acts of kindness for others. Now, more than ever, unity, connection and caring for the vulnerable and isolated is of the utmost importance.
Earlier this month hundreds joined us to Cook-along with Maureen Lipman as part of Every Mitzvah Matters. The act of cooking a hearty, nutritious homemade meal filled with love for another person, showed how much we care. This created ripples throughout families and local neighbourhoods and taught us that we can all do something small to put a smile on someone’s face.
As I mentioned earlier, for the past 7 weeks we’ve done a lot of counting. We’ve counted days in isolation without seeing loved ones and we’ve paid close attention to the COVID-19 infection rates. As the figures have slowly started to recede, we have begun to breathe a sigh of relief, whilst acknowledging that minority communities including our own, have been deeply hit.
There is still much collective uncertainty, although we hope to slowly shift towards familiar patterns. We must acknowledge that the world we will be returning to will not look or feel the same. The accumulated sense of loss and suffering will need to be addressed. We will have to see how much of the economy can be rescued. We must be aware that those most vulnerable prior to COVID-19 will continue to be incredibly vulnerable, and very likely the numbers of vulnerable people will rise even further.
Midrash Tanhuma describes the voice of G-d at Sinai as having emerged when the world was in total silence. It further informs that this Heavenly voice continues daily to ring out those primordial words ‘I am the Lord, your G-d’, calling us to listen and to return to the Truth of all Truths.
For me, this period of counting has given the opportunity to take measure. I’ve enjoyed the birdsong, occasional walks in a nearby nature reserve, and moments of pristine silence.
This year’s Omer, counting period, helped me realize that the true meaning of Shavuot is more than commemorating receiving the 10 Commandments at the base of Mount Sinai once a year, and it’s more than bringing those spiritual duties into my home through Mitzvot. Shavuot is hearing the Almighty’s voice echoing every day in the silence of my own heart.
Each of us is made in the image of the Divine, and I believe when we listen to and find the Heavenly voice inside ourselves we can recognize it in others. It doesn’t matter what faith or background we come from, or how we practice, but simply that we are all human. Only then can healing begin and we can rebuild the world we wish to create.
Let us take this time as we celebrate the gift of the Torah, of harvests and the blossoming of new fruits, to remember what truly matters and what we wish to take with us into the uncertain future ahead.
And of course, let’s enjoy some delicious cheesecake!
Rabbi Jeff and the Mitzvah Day Team