Can we dance at two parties at once?
The holiday of Shavuot brings together interesting bedfellows. The Bible describes it as the time of the wheat harvest and the season-opening of the ceremonial bringing of first fruits to Jerusalem. The rabbinic tradition, however, emphasizes Shavuot as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai.
What has emerged is two distinct expressions of the holiday. Agricultural towns across Israel host festive parades of tractors, open-air produce markets, basket weaving and flower garlands to usher in the holiday. Communities guided by the rabbinic tradition primarily experience Shavuot from within the synagogue with a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an evening of Torah study late into the night to reflect the heightened anticipation of the experience of receiving the Torah with a public reading of the Ten Commandments in the morning.
While this dual nature is consistent with the prototype of each of the three major festivals grounded in both an agricultural moment in time and simultaneously tied to a historical moment in the journey of the Jewish nation, I am left feeling that emergence of these exclusive celebrations emphasizes yet another division within the fabric of Israeli culture.
However, leading up to Shavuot, I spoke with a local farmer who described his experience of waiting for the first fruits to emerge. He spoke of the love and connection that he feels for our land. He spoke of the humble experience of planting a seed, toiling to nurture optimal conditions for his crop while knowing that there are no guarantees of what will emerge. And I heard him describe in powerful terms that, even with all of the technological innovations, “ultimately, I know that we are reliant on the mercy of heaven.”
I was left feeling that perhaps my sense of alienation between the themes was misplaced. A humble ability to listen can in fact bring together the distinct themes. As we celebrate the giving of the Torah in the desert of Sinai, we can appreciate the culmination of that journey to the land of Israel and the mitzvot that shape our sensitivity to it. As we enter the synagogue sanctuaries adorned with greenery to recreate the image of the miraculous flora that graced the Sinai mountain in the midst of the desert, we are offered a chance to literally smell the flowers. As we unroll the Torah to hear its messages, we cannot simply leave it to itself, but we must invest and toil, without any guarantees as to what will emerge. As we celebrate the “time of the giving of our Torah,” we acknowledge that it is indeed a gift and we are granted the opportunity to appreciate the mercy of Heaven that bestowed it upon us.