As a kid growing up Jewish, Shavuot never did much for me. The one thing it had going for it was that it came fifty days after Passover … my favorite holiday. That’s how we marked Shavuot. Why fifty days?
Scripture mentions seven weeks. But that’s forty-nine days! Wait seven weeks. The day after, celebrate Shavuot. Fifty days. In Greek: pentecost.
Christianity also celebrates Pentecost. But it’s Pentecost with a capital “P” and not the same holiday. Shavuot comes fifty days after Passover, Pentecost fifty days after Easter. What makes things exciting is that with Judaism based on the lunar calendar and Christianity on the solar calendar, on any given year when Jews celebrate pentecost, Shavuot, it can be wildly different from when Christians celebrate it.
I was taught as a child that Shavuot celebrates the giving of Torah to the Children of Israel. That’s a beautiful gift. The first five books of Jewish Scripture: the Torah. Some Jewish scholars believe this, the acceptance of Torah, marks the beginning of Judaism.
It was only when I was much older that I learned just how holy this time is that surrounds the giving of the Torah. In Christianity, Pentecost is when the Holy Spirit is said to have descended upon the disciples and other followers of Jesus when they were celebrating, hello, Shavuot in Jerusalem. Some Christian scholars believe this to mark the beginning of the Christian church. Not on the same date, but near enough to be fascinating to me, Muslims celebrate what our friend Sameer spoke of a month ago when we anticipated Ramadan and especially Laylat al Qadr or the Night of Power. It marks the time that God gave to Muhammad the Holy Qur’an.
So in the same month, though very different centuries, Moses received the Torah, the pillar of Judaism, the Disciples received the Holy Spirit, completing the Trinity, and Muhammad received the Qur’an the pillar of Islam.
We’ll be speaking about Shavuot this morning, and, frankly, some troubles I’ve had relating to it over the years. But I wanted to share how remarkable it is to me how this one month is so holy and special and foundational for all of the Abrahamic traditions. This year our calendars aligned! The first day of Shavuot was June 1st. Pentecost was June 4th. The Night of Power will be June 18th, 21st or 22nd depending on different ways of counting. That’s just amazing. Let’s take a moment and breathe that in.
Ok. Shavuot. One of the traditions about Shavuot that bothered me growing up was that the Torah is so flaming repetitive. If it was indeed handed over to Moses in one piece by God, good grief, I wondered, was God really this disorganized? And there were parts of the Torah in conflict with each other (perhaps most famously, two different creation stories). Couldn’t God get the facts straight? For me, this meant that however holy, Torah was the work of humanity, not the divine.
This was one of the things that pushed me away from Judaism, as, I think, the literal reading of sacred texts has pushed many away. But other things in Torah pulled me back to Judaism. I think I’ve spoken of this before – the peril of aging is that you’re never really sure – but even if I have, for me it was so foundational to why I stayed Jewish even as a doubting youth, and have remained Jewish even as I became an Interfaith minister that I want to risk repeating it.
Torah teaches us that when Abraham is told by God to fetch Lot and his wife because God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham doesn’t say, “Yes, God. Whatever you say God.” Torah teaches that Abraham said, and yes, I’m paraphrasing, “Wait a minute. Ok. You’re mad at Sodom and Gomorrah and want to destroy them. I get that. But what if there are fifty good people? Will you destroy them too in your anger? A just God doesn’t act this way!”
God doesn’t zap Abraham for what many might call blasphemy. Instead, God relents and says if there are fifty good people, the cities won’t be destroyed. Well, Abraham now has his foot in the door. What if there are forty, what if there are thirty? And finally, what if there are ten? Ok!! Well, there aren’t ten and the cities are destroyed. But I really liked Abraham’s example. It spoke to me.
Something very similar happens again in Torah, this time in the Book of Exodus. While Moses is atop Sinai, getting not only Torah but very specifically the Decalogue or Ten Commandments from God, the Children of Israel waiting below lose patience and make a golden calf. They begin worshiping the golden calf and God’s reaction is to lose it. God is going to destroy them all but Moses says No! A just God doesn’t act this way. Moses instructs God … I repeat, Moses instructs God, quoting from the translation I have of Scripture, “Turn from Thy fierce wrath and repent of this evil against Thy people.” Moses tells God to repent!
And again, God doesn’t zap Moses for insubordination. Instead, God relents. I never took this as a lesson about God. I took it as a lesson about justice.
I mean, if Torah teaches us that we can talk back to God if we feel an injustice is being done, it seemed to me that we are being told not only that we can but that we have an obligation to stand up to anyone acting unjustly. We are being told that above all, above ALL, even our loyalty to God, is to act with justice. What a lesson! This teaching from the Torah, the gift we celebrate on Shavuot, is what touched my innermost self and kept me Jewish.
Not that there weren’t a few bumps. For one thing, I learned as I studied that the Hebrews were farmers, long before they became Jews. Judaism was a religion of farmers. Indeed, most Jewish holy days were and still are centered around farming. Sowing, reaping.
In fact Shavuot began as an agricultural holiday. The late spring harvest. Indeed, the counting of days between Passover and Shavuot was and is called “Counting the Omer.” Omer means sheaves.
I’ll confess, as a city boy this was of no interest to me. And how an agricultural holiday could morph into the day we received the Torah seemed to me a stretch. Quite frankly, I didn’t given Shavuot another thought until this year.
But what am I celebrating?
I know from my studies that the Torah comes from at least four different sources. They are usually referred to as the Yahwist, the Eloist, the Priestly and the Deuteronomist sources. They are not only different sources but from different centuries. So no, I cannot celebrate Shavuot as the moment God gave Moses the Torah.
Nor does Shavuot the agricultural holy day call to me. Holy days that are crucial to a struggling and oppressed ancient agricultural community, may not have a lot of meaning for the posterity of that community some three thousand years later.
For me, the Torah has two fascinating but differing aspects and I believe this is important. One aspect is as a vessel for holding sacred truths – a guiding light by which we may steer our lives – this never grows old and never loses relevance. The other aspect of Torah is as a repository of ethnic history – not laws for today, but insight into the lives of our ancestors yesterday.
The truth of it is that for me the ethnicity of Scripture, however fascinating, ceases to be relevant. I had to look up what sheaves are, I don’t carry shekels, and I haven’t sacrificed a ram in years!
So why this year has Shavuot not only taken on new meaning but a new urgency? It is because Torah holds sacred truths passed down to me from my ancestors. Most especially here, today, I look to a sacred truth that came both from Abraham and from Moses. The call to justice: to be just and to reject injustice. This call is consistent throughout Scripture. From the prophet Amos, “Let justice roll down like waters.” And the prophet Micah, “What does the Lord ask of you? Only this: to act justly.”
But most especially, at Shavuot, as we celebrate the living Torah in our lives, I hear the call of justice from the work of Abraham and of Moses.
It is pivotal to me that we are called not only to act with justice but to stand up to injustice. Stand up to injustice, not just complain. Abraham did not go home and complain to Sarah, “Oh darling, you can’t believe how unjust God is about to be. But what could I do? It’s God!” No, the lesson I took from Torah was that Abraham spoke up, even to God, to say, “You can’t do this. It’s not just.” For Moses it was the same conundrum answered in the same way. The lesson again, is injustice is injustice, no matter from where or how high it may come.
At this sacred moment, at this sacred time when we celebrate Torah, the Holy Spirit, and the Qur’an, and at this time that injustice has come into our cities and our homes draped in the raiment of fear, and hate in order encourage our smallness and our acquiescence, let us remember our call to justice and our call to stand up to injustice. All injustice. We must demand justice. We must demand justice. We must demand justice.
It is not justice for me. It is not justice for our small group. It is justice for all. Our Black friends, our Latino friends, our Muslim friends, our LGBTQ friends.
Let justice roll down like waters. Let us act with justice and demand justice: no matter who is looking, no matter from where the injustice comes. No matter how powerful the perpetrator of injustice may be. As we celebrate Shavuot and throughout the year let us honor our sacred books and our sacred traditions by taking up the mantle of justice and not giving ground.
Let justice roll down like waters.
May we stand firmly against injustice. Remembering that we are taught by all of our traditions that an injustice against the stranger is an injustice against ourselves. In this time of such stress and fear, let justice roll down like waters.