Quietly, without much fanfare, we are about to enter one of the most uncomfortable periods on the Jewish calendar—for me, anyway. It doesn’t happen every year, but it happens frequently enough. It isn’t one of those times on the calendar that commemorates martyrdom or destruction, and it’s not the anniversary of someone’s death. It is, seemingly, more mundane than that. But it pains me nonetheless.
This Shabbat the Jewish world will be divided, and it will stay divided for a month. How so? Friday is Shavuot. In Israel, and in those communities in America that observe one day of Shavuot, this Shabbat’s Torah reading will be Parashat Naso. But in diaspora communities that observe two days of Shavuot, the Torah reading on Saturday will be a special one for the second day of the holiday. Those communities will not read Naso until next week, and the cycle will be off until July 8, when all Jewish communities around the will read Parashat Pinchas. During these five weeks, we won’t be on the same page (literally—in the figurative way we’ve come to use that word these days).
The last time this happened was a few years ago, when I was writing the essay series that would become my book Eternal Questions, and it caused me some genuine discomfort. There is something so stabilizing about knowing that all Jewish communities are reading and studying the same Torah during a given week. Every week during this period felt like something was just deeply off, unsettled, out of order. Torah, which is meant to be something that we share, that unites us, now felt like something that highlighted our divisions.
Honestly, I don’t have a good resolution to that, other than to name and hold it. But: I think it points up, in a positive way, what Torah can and should be the rest of the time—our common language, our common inheritance, our ‘commons.’ Torah—by which I mean not just the Five Books of Moses, but the astounding entirety of the Jewish textual and oral tradition that grows out of those books—belongs to all Jews and every Jew, and it is the privilege and responsibility of all Jews and every Jew to study and learn and grow and find ourselves within it. As the tradition teaches, each of us is a letter in a Torah scroll—or even a part of a letter—and thus each of us belongs within the totality of Torah. We all have a stake here. Not only that: Every time we encounter ourselves and one another in and through Torah, we reveal a new aspect of ourselves and the Divine.
It is this emphasis on interconnection and relationship that I think is so important to remember this Shavuot, as we re-experience the revelation at Sinai and re-accept the Torah once again. Talmud Torah (Torah study) isn’t primarily an intellectual experience. It isn’t only supposed to be interesting. If we come away from our study of Torah only to say, “That was interesting,” we’re not doing it right. Torah study is, first and foremost, about connection: to our heritage, to our ancestors, to our study partners, to our community, to the Holy One, to ourselves. When we study Torah, the most important thing we’re doing has nothing to do with intellectual brilliance but rather with emotional and spiritual connection. This isn’t to say that intellect isn’t important, it is; but it isn’t primary. Relationship and connection come first.
Perhaps that’s why we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. When Ruth becomes Judaism’s most famous convert, she does not have to pass a test about her knowledge of Jewish law or history. It is, rather, her profound expression of connection, that makes her the ancestor of the Messiah: “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (1:16).
So as we enter Shavuot, and immediately afterward this month of divided Torah-reading, I want to offer the blessing to all of us to renew our experience of Torah study as an expression of Hesed, the loving connection between each of us and each other, between all of us and the Divine. And whichever Torah portion we’re studying over the coming weeks (I’ll be reading Naso next week), may our study of Torah illuminate and deepen those connections.