The cycle of the Jewish year goes round and round and fortunately there is always another holiday! This week we celebrate Shavuot after counting the days from Passover until now. Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are the three pilgrimage holidays when the Israelites made the trek to Jerusalem. There is an important agricultural component to the holiday but the most important reason is that on Shavuot we remember standing at Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah directly from G-d.
For such an important moment, it is somewhat surprising that there are not a lot of rituals. It is a synagogue holiday with special prayers added plus we read the Book of Ruth (I’m not going to tell you the story but you gotta go read it!). Some of the themes on the story include loyalty and friendship, which are so important. We also focus on the values of kindness and compassion.
What else? Many stay up all night and study remembering how we were so excited to receive the Torah that we couldn’t sleep the night before. Of course the favorite part of the holiday is the eating of dairy, which goes to remembering how in receiving the Torah we got ALL the rules. We didn’t know all the kosher rules so it was easier just to eat dairy (there is a lot more on that as well so go and read the Midrash!).
However, the most important part of the story is the belief that we all stood there together to hear G-d’s words and we said together, “Na’aseh v’nishma” — “We will do and we will understand.” We accepted the covenant first knowing that we cannot survive as a people with only laws, expectations and norms. They knew that to really understand, you need to “do” — you need to act, behave, create and participate actively in the learning and understanding. It is not enough to learn without action.
Fast forward to John Dewey, educational thinker, who knew that children will learn best through doing — education is not a preparation for life, but life itself! Fast-forward to today; brain research shows what John Dewey and our ancestors knew — we must engage in learning that is authentic, relevant and interesting! What could be more interesting than Torah — both timely and timeless? The stories stay with us and through those stories we learn and practice our values.
Yes, we stood at Sinai and committed to following the rules. How did we do? Not so well! And today we often are not doing much better. Shavuot tells us that it is time to recommit. There is a legend that Mount Sinai dressed for this special occasion, just like we do when we go to a party. Beautiful flowers grew all around and on top of the mountain. Each year we have the opportunity to bloom again and continue to stand together! Chag Sameach! Let’s eat some ice cream!
Laura Seymour is Jewish experiential learning director and camp director emeritus at the Aaron Family JCC.