Shavout: The Story of Now

I attended a lovely Bat Mitzvah service this past Saturday, which is always a momentous occasion, but particularly so in our small synagogue. The Bat Mitzvah girl read one of my favorite readings from the new Reform prayer book Mishkan T'filah, "Why Am I a Jew?" As a Jew, I have always felt a strong call to engage in a meaningful quest for hope and activism. This week, as the Jewish holiday of Shavout approaches, it begs the question, "why?"

Scholars say the Jewish calendar stands on three pillars, each originating from the Torah. One is the fall holidays of Tishrei: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. The second is the spring holiday of Passover. And the third is the upcoming holiday of Shavout, falling seven weeks after the spring holiday of Passover (and the end of the Counting of the Omer), at the start of summer. Each of these seasonal pillars tells a story that illuminates the Jewish spirit and animates our collective and, perhaps "my" individual calling in the world.

Briefly, the first story is that of the Tishrei holidays, including the High Holidays. These holidays may be seen to represent Judaism's "story of the self" -- a time of spiritual development through personal self-reflection and prayer. It is the Jewish practice that addresses the narrative of our personal hurts and hopes, as a community. This extends to the seventh day of Sukkot, which according to rabbinic tradition, marks the final day of "judgement," begun on Rosh Hashana.

The second story could be characterized as "the story of us." It is the one most Jews (and non-Jews) are familiar, the story of Passover. The Exodus from Egypt is the story of Jewish nationhood and is the point where Jews acquire their political and Jewish identity, beyond slavery, to create a narrative that extends to all who live in the world. Thus "the Jewish story of us," ensures that "the Jewish story of self," is linked to the larger narrative and makeup of the community and not just a narcissistic expression.

The third story is the revelation of God at Sinai and the giving of the Torah ("matan Torah") to the Jewish people, which is celebrated this week during the festival of Shavout. Shavout is about revealing God's will to humanity, metaphorically speaking. According to Rabbi Paul Steinberg, author of the series, Celebrating the Jewish Year, the Jewish conception of revelation in modern times is described by the continual synthesis of our conscience -- today's conscience -- with Torah values. This, he says, is Judaism's approach to identifying which hurts demand healing and which hopes should be pursued. In this way, the Torah manifests itself as a way of addressing the pains and maladies in the world and in ourselves, everyday of every generation -- in other words: "the story of now."

Rabbi Steinberg suggests that when we understand Judaism through these three stories, told and retold throughout the Jewish year, we discover being a Jew means being continually invited to tell our stories and to participate in healing the world's hurts and pursuing its hopes. We discover that being a Jew means being a valued part of a people and tradition that have always exemplified activism, faith and relentless hope. I guess I will take this to heart, as I enjoy my delicious (and traditional dairy) blintzes, in honor of Shavout this year. Why dairy is another story. If you ask me when you see me, I will maybe tell you "why?"

Pamela S. Ovshinsky is a sociologist and civil rights activist who has worked for more than 30 years in the fields of social and institutional change, influenced by her early Jewish education. She currently sits on the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Central District Council. Ovshinsky is a graduate of the University of Michigan in sociology and speech and theatre and holds a Master of Social Work degree in social policy from the School of Social Development at the University of Minnesota. She is a member and past trustee of Temple B'nai Israel, locally and has lived in historic downtown Petoskey since 1989.
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