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Why Joe Lieberman and I think the world of Shavuot

The former US senator is spreading the word on Shavuot, celebrating one of the greatest paradigm shifts in history
Former senator Joe Lieberman and Rabbi Ari Kahn. (Courtesy, Ari Kahn)
Former senator Joe Lieberman and Rabbi Ari Kahn. (Courtesy, Ari Kahn)
Sen. Joe Lieberman and Rabbi Ari D. Kahn

It may seem unusual for a former United States senator to collaborate on a book with a rabbi, but when the senator involved is Joe Lieberman, it isn’t strange at all.

Senator Lieberman, aside from his many other accomplishments, is also the author of “The Gift of Rest,” in which he makes a very strong argument for Sabbath observance in the modern world. This latest endeavor, “With Liberty and Justice,” sprang out of his regular study sessions with Rabbi Menachem Genack, a leading Torah scholar and CEO of the Orthodox Union Kosher Division.

“With Liberty and Justice” is all about the study of Torah, the Law Moses received at Mount Sinai, and the way that Law changed the world; Torah is the reason the book was born, and it is the book’s subject. In the course of their learning, then-Senator Lieberman remarked to Rabbi Genack that he is often saddened by the fact that the overwhelming “success” of the Passover seder does not carry through to the holiday that follows it in the Jewish calendar: Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks (Pentecost).

Passover is celebrated, in one way or another, by an overwhelming majority of Jews, and it has been a defining Jewish experience for millennia. We might go so far as to say that the Passover seder is the longest-running educational program in the history of the world, transmitting Jewish identity to countless generations. How is it, then, that Shavuot is familiar to only a small percentage of those who celebrate Passover? Why has Shavuot, which commemorates one of the most far-reaching paradigm shifts in human society, become virtually unknown outside of the circle of observant Jewish practice? Moreover, freedom without law and values leads only to anarchy, to tell the story of the Exodus, without the eventual giving of the law, is an absurdity.

Senator Lieberman’s insightful question could not be ignored. The then-senator and the rabbi began to discuss the importance of Shavuot as a celebration of the Law — which, both the rabbi and the senator agreed, lies at the very heart of Jewish life, and is perhaps the greatest gift Judaism has given the world. Determined to raise awareness of the message of Shavuot and to illuminate the link between the well-known holiday of freedom, Passover, and the often-overlooked or unknown festival of the Giving of the Law, Shavuot, the idea for “From Liberty to Justice” was born. The concept was to produce a volume made up of 50 short chapters that take the reader on a journey through the days that are counted between the two festivals.

To realize this vision, another rabbi (yours truly) was included in the project — and a new cycle of analysis, discussion, and the give-and-take that are the heart of the Jewish learning experience, began. If the end result is as enlightening and enjoyable as the process of creating “From Liberty to Justice” has been, the effort will have been well worth it.

What is the book actually about? What subjects does it treat? The opening chapters examine various aspects and facets of law, and then moves to the early narrative sections of the Torah, tracing the roots of the concept of law back to the very dawn of the human experience: From the Garden of Eden through God’s promises to Abraham, law has always been at the epicenter of history. The centrality of law becomes much more pronounced as the Jewish people begins to take shape, and “With Liberty and Justice” then focuses, quite naturally, on Passover, the celebration of liberty that marks the birth of a nation freed from slavery.

Several of the chapters look closely at the concepts of slavery and freedom, offering the Jewish perspective on the most basic concepts of nationhood and personal liberty. Other chapters focus on the “Counting of the Omer,” the period that connects the Festival of Liberty to the Festival of Law that is celebrated 50 days later. A number of chapters are dedicated to The Revelation at Sinai — as an experience, and as a content-driven event. At Sinai, the Jewish people were given a mandate; through them, the world was endowed with a system of law that has the power to uplift, to unify, and to redeem.

Just as Passover, the Festival of Spring, is inextricably intertwined with agricultural themes, so, too, Shavuot has a dual identity. It celebrates and commemorates an event, a particular day on which the world was forever changed by the giving of the Torah. On the other hand, Shavuot is also called the Holiday of Bikkurim, the celebration of the “first fruits.” Both of these aspects are discernible in the dual message Moses received at the burning bush, the very first communication he received from God that set the Exodus in motion. Standing at Horeb/Sinai, Moses was told he would lead the Israelites out of slavery and take them to the Promised Land. At the same time, he was informed that the journey from the land of their bondage to the land of their fathers, the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, would include a stop at Horeb/Sinai, where they would rendezvous with God.

The Israelites’ path to freedom, then, had two destinations, which reflect the dual identity of Shavuot: The Land of Israel is the destination celebrated by the agricultural festival, when farmers bring their produce to Jerusalem and thank God for the bounty of the Land, and Mount Sinai is the destination celebrated by the historical festival, commemorating the Revelation they experienced in the desert, the culmination of the freedom they were given on Passover, and the Law they received there, which would ensure their freedom forever. Several chapters examine this law, studying the Ten Commandments individually and as a corpus.

But this is not just any study; in a sense,”With Liberty and Justice” allows the reader to become a “chavruta,” an intimate study partner, of former senator Lieberman. When one is privileged to have such a study partner, the learning is enriched by the anecdotes and insights that he has gleaned from over half a century of public service and passionate commitment to the law. The Rev. Martin Luther King, former president Bill Clinton, then-senator Abraham Ribicoff, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and other “guests” make appearances in the book, as biblical passages, talmudic teachings, and principles of American law are woven together in a discussion that ranges from environmentalism to ethics to Eros and beyond.

“With Liberty and Justice” is current, forward-looking, yet based on Jewish tradition and values, and brings a thoughtful new perspective that may be enjoyed either as a day-to-day, chapter by chapter guide for the 50-day countdown from Passover to Shavuot, or as a study text for the traditional Shavuot eve marathon of Torah learning.

Whether this Shavuot is your first or your 40th,”With Liberty and Justice” is a great springboard for lively discussion on and about the holiday and its central themes and message. It aims to encourage further learning, commemoration and celebration (don’t miss the chapter on cheesecake!), making it an ideal gift for those who are less familiar with Shavuot but might be interested in finding out more.

With Liberty and Justice: The Fifty Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai, by Senator Joe Lieberman with Rabbi Ari Kahn, OU Press/Maggid Publishing

 

Joe Lieberman was a US senator from Connecticut for 24 years. At the end of his service in January 2013, he was chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. In 2000, he was the Democratic candidate for Vvice-president of the United States.

Rabbi Ari Kahn is a senior lecturer in Judaic Studies at Bar Ilan University, Israel. He is also the rabbi of the Mishkan Etrog community in Givat Ze’ev Israel.

About the Author
Ari Kahn is a rabbi, author and educator who lives in Givat Ze’ev. He is a senior lecturer in Judaic Studies at Bar Ilan University. His latest book is Echoes of Eden: Sefer Bamidbar; Spies, Subversives and Other Scoundrels.
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