Shavuot, or Pentecost, to me is the most fascinating holiday of all the Biblical holidays, probably because I think it is the only holiday where Judaism and Christianity, in their present state, share a bit of commonality. Most obviously its Greek name, “Pentecost,” is used by both (though not so much by Jewish people) and they both observe the defining moment which gave birth to each community and ultimately, I believe, it defines each community’s own approach to God. To Jews, God gave His Words, Torah, at Sinai on Pentecost. To Christians, God gave His Spirit in Jerusalem on Pentecost. The depth and width of these two parallel events and their implications millennia later are not something my mind is capable of grasping.
For the longest time, I didn’t know how to observe this holiday as a Christian. Coming from a mainstream Protestant background where ritual and tradition are mostly shunned, I don’t think anything is done for this holiday except maybe sermonizing on the event from church pulpits. We do not actively do anything collectively to commemorate this watershed event so it doesn’t feel like we really observe it. Without actively observing it, it is impossible to experience and relate to the essence of the holiday. That was, until I came to Jerusalem and participated along with Jewish people on the eve of Shavuot.
On the eve of Shavuot, Jerusalem stays awake for the entire night in learning, prayers, and great expectations of God. All the synagogues and many private homes, and there are a lot of synagogues in Jerusalem, are brightly lit and host lessons about commandments, Biblical text interpretation, Jewish law, Biblical principles, Jewish identity, Sages’ writings, current events, etc. Lesson topics and their times are posted on bulletins and emailed out in advance. People, especially young people, go from synagogue to synagogue to learn – I call it “Shavuot synagogue hopping.” The city is awake and full of energy throughout the night. Then at about 4:30am the faithful start to make their way to the Western Wall. As we get closer to the Old City the stream of people becomes greater, all walking in the same direction in the darkness of the night. Soon the alleys of the Old City are filled, everyone walking silently toward the Western Wall to make their petitions to God. As we approach the security check we can hear muttered prayers echoing between the walls. Thousands of people have already filled the Western Wall Plaza, men under their white prayer shawls, women mostly dressed in white. Sometimes there is singing, and sometimes there is dancing. As the time gets closer to daybreak thousands more come. As the first light of the morning peaks through the top of the Temple Mount, the sound of prayers becomes louder and full of urgency, rising up the walls. Finally, the sun is completely above the Temple Mount and casts a golden radiance on everything below. The exhausted crowd slowly disperses. During the morning service in the synagogues, the Ten Commandments will be read. Congregants old and young will listen as if they too were standing at the foot of Mount Sinai.
I have since adopted this practice for Pentecost (celebrated on the time of the Jewish Pentecost), to dive into the scriptures, to pray, and to have great expectations of God to fulfill His words concerning His people and the Nations. This year I have two expectations in mind.
The first expectation rose from a Shabbat dinner that my husband and I were invited to. After our host gave the d’var Torah on my favorite portion, “Lech Lecha” (means “go for you”, Genesis 12:1–17:27), and after some discussions of everyone’s own personal “Lech Lecha”, the rabbi sat across from us asked us, two Christians, “so in your view, what is the future of the Jewish people?” We were delighted at the question – probably because we had known the answer for a long time – so delighted that we both answered in unison, paraphrasing prophet Zechariah, “ten Gentiles will hold onto the garment of a Jew and say let us go with you because God is with you.” The actual text from Zachariah 8:23 reads, ““Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘In those days ten men from every language of the nations shall grasp the sleeve of a Jewish man, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.” ’ ”
The rabbi seemed slightly surprised at our answer and asked, “you don’t consider that to be arrogant?”
“But Jews didn’t come up with that arrangement,” I was surprised at the rabbi’s question. We explained why we thought it was God’s plan and that Jewish people were given a mission. We joked that since they didn’t say no at Sinai, now they are stuck in that relationship (and indeed, they are stuck in that relationship because God said through prophet Hosea so beautifully, “I will betroth you to me forever….”). Surveying the world situation these days it is hard to imagine a day where ten gentiles would hold onto the garment of a Jew in any positive manner. It seems entirely impossible yet God painted that same picture many times from different angles in the Bible. His mind seems to be set on that, so we know it will happen. It is just a matter of when. May it happen in our lifetime.
The second expectation rose from a fantastic concert from the Israel Festival this year. The concert is called “From East to West.” The first part of the concert was a series of arranged songs from Lebanese singer Fairuz and Yemen-born Israeli singer Shoshana Damari. I did not know any of these beautiful songs, but from the reaction of the audiences in the packed Henry Crown Hall in Jerusalem Theatre, I knew the audiences were more than delighted by these songs. The Arab singers who performed Fairuz songs dressed in white dresses, one of them wore a cross. The audiences clapped along as the singers sang, especially during a song that had to do with “habibi”. There was such enthusiasm toward the songs no matter whether they were in Arabic or in Hebrew; I was almost in tears. The second part of the concert started with a beautiful Arabic melody. The front row musicians were playing some instruments I assumed were Arabic while the rest of the orchestra waited. Audiences clapped heartily as the conductor highlighted each musician as he/she played solo on their instrument. The central melody of the music sounded familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it; I wished this could go on for the rest of the evening. Then in a blink of the eye, the rest of the symphony picked up and the music seamlessly transformed into what I thought had to be Mozart. I thought I heard the whole concert hall gave a gasp of surprise. When I caught my own breath again, I scrabbled to find the program to see what just happened. Oh, that was the Oriental Music Division of the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance performing an introduction to Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. The Arabic style introduction was composed especially for this evening’s concert which had the theme of “celebrating the blurring of musical boundaries and creating an inspiring intercultural dialogue.”
I wished the whole world could be here to see this performance. They would see the desire to respect, collaborate, and preserve the humanities in this Land. Maybe I am too naïve to think that the world would recognize the Jewish heart. If the world cannot see it, I am certain God sees what’s in His children’s hearts. A few scripture verses about what God gives to His children came to mind, they are from the “New Testament”, Matthew 7:9 – 11, “which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
May God grant the desires in His children’s hearts. May it happen in our lifetime!