I’ve been living in Israel for coming on 17 years and each year I continue to learn. Learn how to conjugate words, what words are female or male, that nearly everything has an abbreviated acronym and that it is okay to ask a total stranger anything on your mind.
Out of all of the holidays of the year, it is my experience of Shavuot that has undergone the greatest metamorphosis. I grew up in a truly remarkable community in Woodmere, New York where its leaders understood that Shavuot, the holiday that our Rabbis coin as the ‘Time of the Giving of Our Torah’ could be an incredible experience of Torah learning. I remember the pillars of my youth, professional and lay, teaching learned legal analyses on a myriad of topics on curious questions with great dedication and delight to those who gathered in the late hours of the night to listen and learn.
I can recreate the image of exactly where I was sitting one year in our synagogue gym on Shavuot night in a large circle of children and adults opposite a looming basketball net. Many of those present had taken on studying a few chapters of the Torah, Prophets or Writings and when we sat together that night we collectively celebrated the completion of the entire 929 chapters of the Bible. A profound sense of communal and personal connection to Torah.
Since coming to Israel and living in one of the early agricultural settlements of Modern Israel, I have internalized a whole other dimension of the holiday. In Zichron Yaakov, as in many agriculturally related towns around the country, Shavuot is celebrated with children dressed in white wearing flower garlands on their head, tractors carrying floats bursting with local produce, livestock and farmers, bales of hay and wheat. While romantic in experience, it took me a few years of reading and rereading the Biblical descriptions of Shavuot to understand that, however unfamiliar to my childhood experience, it reflects the Torah’s verse. In the Biblical description, Shavuot is the wheat harvest, the beginning of the season when people brought their first fruits of the seven species of the Land of Israel to the Temple in Jerusalem. (Exodus 23:13-16) The Torah describes a holiday that during Temple times was attuned to and a celebration of the coming to the Land. With time, I came to realize that this dimension of my Shavuot experience, had been missing until I came home.
This week amidst the town’s wheat festival of doves and tractors, kite making and flower garland twisting, our community hosted a photo booth for people to get dressed up as pilgrims coming to bring their first fruits with overflowing baskets of grapes and wheat. We created a pamphlet exploring some ideas of what there is to celebrate about wheat including references from the Torah, Talmud, local history, song and Thomas Jefferson. We hosted a station for creative spirits to etch leaves from the seven species and turn them into cards that were delivered the next day with homemade cheesecakes to a local psychiatric inpatient ward. It was a vibrant celebration of creativity, fun and compassionate connection.
Shavuot display in front of a local store (courtesy of author)However amidst judicial overhauls and a general unsettling of the cultural weave of Israel that has led to an airing of deep emotions, last night I came to appreciate yet another element of the holiday. In what I thought was an innocuous gesture, I shared details of our community’s Shavuot night Torah study in our neighborhood whatsapp group. For over a decade we have hosted a city-wide night of study and discussion that brings together the incredible range of Israel’s secular and religious, immigrants and founders, young and seasoned. We have hosted ministers of the government, authors, Torah scholars, professors, actors, scientists, chefs, innovators, psychologists, fitness trainers and more to unpack a topic of study throughout the night. It’s an energizing space of new ideas and a depth of understanding amidst the diversity of perspectives that is hard to describe. A true celebration of Torah that is enriched by a diversity of voices.
However, this year, in the WhatsApp group of 124 people who live within a few blocks of my house, my message set off a vitriolic firestorm. Suddenly the man who circles our house when we’re away to make sure that all is well was in a fierce back and forth with a neighbor I’ve never met but with an adorable picture of a bundled baby as his profile pic. Ultimately the admin of the group shut down the conversation and some neighbors left to a breakaway group. Yes, I received a flurry of messages and wrote with each of the passionate parties with plans to catch a coffee after the holiday, but I also realized something profound. The agricultural festival that the Torah describes is a celebration of coming to the Land of Israel. The Rabbinic formulation of the holiday, the ‘Time of the Giving of Our Torah’ emphasizes the collective nature of our Shavuot experience. A return to the Land has invigorated the Torah’s description of Shavuot as an authentic celebration of coming home. It matters how mine and my neighbors wheat is growing, fruits are appreciated and Torah is experienced. The opportunity to find meaning and relevance together is truly a cause for celebration.