Unlike the other Chagim of Pesach and Succot, Shavuot lacks obvious symbols and practices, such as the lulav and etrog or the Seder plate and matzah. What then would I have in my collection relevant for this upcoming holiday?
The answer is one word (or maybe many!), sermons. As we are about to celebrate this festival of the giving of the Torah, I find in my collection sermons in which leading English rabbis have used this occasion to deliver messages combining the historic religious day with contemporary events and a topical message.
Preeminent amongst these were the Shavuot sermons delivered by Chief Rabbi Hertz during the Nazi period. In 1938, he spoke on “The Lesson of Vienna” in a sermon which was subsequently published (illustrated). The Nazis had just annexed Austria and begun an intensive persecution of the country’s Jewish population. Surprisingly, Hertz remained relatively positive in his synagogue speech, tragically predicting incorrectly that the “overwhelming majority of …Jewish Jews will survive the terror.”
The clue to his optimism was in the phrase “Jewish Jews.” His theme was that the Torah as given on Shavuot gives the Jew an “unconquerable will to endure all things for his Faith and People.” However, as he said, this depends on maintaining Jewish education in the UK as well as overseas. Thus, Chief Rabbi Hertz ends his sermon with an appeal for the Jewish Religious Education Board.
Four years later, in 1942, with war and persecution raging across Europe, Hertz wrote an introduction to the Board’s Shavuot publication for young people (illustrated). His message includes the somewhat cryptic sentence that “Pentecost bids every Jew …to uphold by word and deed and example, the sacredness of the moral foundations on which alone human society can be based.”
The meaning of these remarks was made explicitly clear in his Shavuot sermon dated just a few days later, entitled Pentecost and Commercial Honesty (Illustrated).
The sermon delved into the topic of Jewish participation in the black market, trading in foods which allowed people to bypass the rationing of many foodstuffs and sell extra quantities illegally. With characteristic outspokenness, Hertz condemned Jewish participation in such “unholy dealings,” deeming it “a defamation of the Jewish name, a Chilul Hashem.” The perpetrators, in his view, were “worse than ordinary criminals, they are blasphemers.” He concluded, however, with a positive message, which should resonate with us today, “May we too answer the message of Shevuous… All that the Lord hath spoken we will do, and we will obey.”
As a historian and collector, this festival of Shavuot may be devoid of historic objects, but the pulpit sermons and speeches I have in my possession from decades ago, still resonate with us even today, much like the Torah itself.