As the end of the month of May approaches, the usual tick of the calendar which involves end of the year celebrations, summer pool parties, and the NBA playoffs unfortunately isn’t in motion. The end of May also indicates something else. For the Jewish calendar, it marks the Holiday of Shavuot, the last of the 3 major pilgrimage festivals. Shavuot has also been transformed into celebrating the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, a most significant event for the world and Jewish history. Along with Sukkot and Passover, Shavuot is the last holiday in the Jewish calendar in which a pilgrimage was traditionally made to Jerusalem; and it used to be held in very high esteem when folks actually were farmers. Nowadays, it is understandable as to why Jews living in the modern world don’t relate to this agrarian holiday, especially since there’s no Seder or building of a Sukkah. But the other aspect of Sukkot, the celebration of receiving the Torah, should not be overlooked. It is simply puzzling that this holiday is generally less observed when it constitutes such a vital aspect of Judaism.
Let’s try a thought experiment. Since Shavuot is celebrating that Jews received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, we can ask where would we be without it? How would civilization have been altered without the moral compass that the Torah provides? The lesson of loving your neighbor as yourself, honoring your mother and father, and clothing the naked. The commandment to not steal, murder, lie, make false accusations, and envy other’s possessions. These ethical principles may seem obvious to us today, but they had to stem from somewhere. Luckily, we have Shavuot to remember and celebrate that fact.
Since the CDC declared COVID-19 a pandemic in early March, the world has changed dramatically. The last 2 and a half months have required serious adjustments personally, politically, socially, economically, and societally. It has been extremely trying for most of us, and it’s important to remember that not everyone is having the same experience. Now more than ever it seems society could use a little recharge into some of the basics of human decency. Amidst the pandemic, levels of anxiety, stress, and depression have risen due to many people being cut off from normal social interaction, exposed to uncertainty about their future financially, and most importantly having lost loved ones and usually not being able to spend their last moments together. Turning to the basic ethics given in the Torah I believe could potentially help us during this challenging endeavor. If we get impatient while working at home, remember to work honorably. If we become short tempered, keep in mind the commandment to not take God’s name in vein; which I also view as symbolizing as having clean speech.
This past week in Minneapolis, MN, an innocent man was brutally killed by a police officer. George Floyd, may he rest in peace, was the unfortunate recipient of a most likely angry and power hungry, probably racist police officer. The police officer sat kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes despite Floyd crying out that he could not breath. The video is difficult to watch. Since the police officer is white and Floyd was black, it has sparked numerous protests across the United States addressing police brutality and racism. And by all means it should spark protests. The continued violence innocent black men have experienced at the hands of white police officers is inexcusable, ugly, and anti-American.
Unfortunately the protests have turned from peaceful to violent, resulting in looting and burning of various businesses. One tragedy has been followed by more tragedy, as it is reported that 11 people have lost their lives during the protesting. Two commandments from the Torah stick out to me when reflecting on what’s transpiring in the United States at the moment. The first most obviously is do not murder. Fortunately, I don’t worry too much about the average citizen wanting to go and murder innocent people which is why I want to focus on the second commandment that is commanding my attention. The commandment to not make false accusations. This appears to be a simple commandment to adhere to and yet, it has been the least followed rule in the events unfolding after George Floyd’s death:
“All police are brutal racists”
“If you don’t show up to protest and you’re white, you don’t care about black lives”
“If you are angry about the looting, then you value businesses over lives”
The list goes on and on. The “us vs. them” mentality makes sense in the heat of the moment, but it is not productive and not reflective of reality. I don’t see any of these claims being backed up by sufficient evidence. The accusation that the police officer who committed this horrible atrocity is a racist is most likely true, but we haven’t seen any evidence linking racism to his intentions. If and when that evidence turns up, then it is acceptable to make that claim. The anger is understandable. The feeling that nothing is changing and the subsequent protests is understandable.The desire for fundamental change is necessary. But to make false accusations against people without evidence is only going to further divide us, in a time where division is the last thing we need.
It is curious that these events have transpired during the Shavuot holiday, in which we contemplate the receiving of the Torah. A time when we remember that we have the obligation to lead a life guided by its principles. My hope is that we can all take a breath and reflect on what really matters to us, how we are living day to day, how we treat others, and how we can positively create change in society without violence.