Thursday, May 24, 2012
Shavuot begins Saturday evening. Our least famous “big” holiday, Shavuot lacks even a reasonable English name: Passover is pretty much exactly Pesach and Tabernacles is at least a bad translation of Sukkot (although, not knowing any nineteenth century preachers, I have never actually heard anyone call it that), but Shavuot doesn’t even have a bizarre English name for people not to call it by. The word shavuot means “weeks,” in biblical context a reference to the fact that the festival falls exactly seven weeks after Passover-Pesach, but who ever called the holiday Weeks? It was once customary in Christian circles to refer to Shavuot in English as Pentecost because that name, derived from the Greek word for “fifty,” seemed reasonably to refer to the fact that, there being forty-nine days in seven weeks, Shavuot indeed does fall on the fiftieth day after the first day of Passover. But the name Pentecost not only never caught on in this context but actually did catch on in an entirely different context to denote a Christian festival totally unrelated to Shavuot, one which falls on the day that a text in the New Testament Book of Acts marks as the day, exactly fifty days after the crucifixion, on which the spirit of prophecy descended on the disciples of Jesus. (To be more precise, “totally unrelated” is not entirely correct since, at least according to the simplest reading of the synoptic Gospels, the crucifixion took place on Passover. So the first Pentecost did indeed coincide with Shavuot. And the whole concept is clearly a reflex of an early impulse within the primitive church to make parallel the stories of the ancient Israelites and the new Christians, thus subtly to discover in Christendom the “true” Israel. Later, this denigratory impulse, existing on the boundary line between insulting and pernicious, became distinctly less subtle. But the festivals are otherwise totally unrelated. And since the church formally denounced and renounced the custom of fixing the date of Easter with reference to Passover at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 CE, Shavuot and Pentecost never coincide other than by rare coincidence.)
It’s a shame that we don’t focus more intently on Shavuot, because embedded in its story are worthy principles for Jewish people even today to embrace. The story, of course, is the Torah’s account of Israel at Sinai and the festival is traditionally understood to celebrate the day on which God spoke the words of the Ten Commandments aloud from atop the mountain. It’s a hard story to embrace unequivocally. Moderns tend to respond to it by asking if it is true. It’s a good question, but, regretfully, one that cannot be answered with anything like the kind of certainty modern historians attempt to bring to bear in their discussions of other legendary events and their evaluation of those events’ actual historicity. Of course, being unable scientifically to demonstrate that something happened does not necessarily imply that it didn’t happen, merely that it cannot be proven. And to suppose that events rooted in national memory are by definition exercises in wishful national thinking is not that defensible a line of thinking with respect to events so far back in time that their historicity is as really far more unprovable than merely unproven.
So we are left wondering…but perhaps that is the point: that the holiday is meant to engender wonder rather than frustration, engagement with the tale itself absent the natural skepticism moderns tend to bring to unverifiable stories. (Just to remain with this point for a moment, we grant events in our personal histories the weight of historicity without provability all the time almost without thinking about it at all. I have no way, nor is there any way nor could there be this far after the fact, to prove that my parents bought me a red Schwinn bicycle for my ninth birthday. No receipts were preserved. I have no idea where exactly my dad went to buy it. I have no parents to present as witnesses to the event. There is, I feel certain, no possibility of any of my friends who were present possibly remembering all these years later what my parents bought me for my birthday, nor could any of them prove it even if they did recall me getting that specific bicycle on that specific day. My parents, always for some reason averse to recording things for posterity, took no home movies. There are no still photographs either. But I feel absolutely certain the event occurred. I just can’t prove it. I remember the day clearly, possibly because it was also the day Adolf Eichmann was hanged. But for the nine-year-old me the bicycle was the thing, not the day’s news from Israel. I suppose historians could prove what happened in the Ramla prison that day. But my party exists, to the extent that it exists at all, within the confines of my own recollective consciousness and nowhere else.)
And so we are left not with home movies of the Israelites at Sinai, but with a single national memory preserved in Scripture and venerated for generations as something that truly happened. The details we all know. The Israelites, safe on the far side of the Sea of Reeds, travelled further into the desert until arrived at the mysterious mountain alternately referenced in Scripture as the Mountain of God, Mount Choreiv, and Mount Sinai. Here, they set up camp, then—after being instructed by Moses how exactly to prepare themselves—washed their clothes, kept apart from their spouses, and waited for God. And then, on the third day, God finally spoke. What he said we also all know. To believe in God. Not to worship idols. Not to take false oaths in God’s name. To keep shabbos. To be respectful towards our parents. Not to murder. Not to betray our spouses’ trust. Not to steal. Not to lie in court. Not to give ourselves over to obsessive acquisitiveness. Judging from the larger narrative, God intended to keep going through the rest of the commandments, but the people, overwhelmed and not sure how much more they could take, begged Moses to intercede, to receive the rest of the revelation personally and then to reveal it to them in a less emotionally super-charged moment. Moses agreed. God stopped talking. The Torah moves on to some other material, then opens its account of the Book of the Covenant that God then proceeded to reveal to Moses atop the mountain. And so we moderns are left with the story as told…and challenged to do with it what we will.
Forty years later, Moses was still talking about it. Speaking from the edge of his own life and looking back to Sinai, he is recorded as speaking directly to the Israelites of the new generation as though they themselves had been at the foot of the mountain on “the great day on which you…approached the foot of the mountain and stood there as the mountain was ablaze with fire that rose to the heart of heaven…but also with darkness, cloud, and fog. And then did the Eternal, your God, speak to you from the midst of the fire—permitting that you hear a voice speaking words but not that you see any image at all, only that you experience the Voice—telling you of [first] ten codicils of the divine covenant that God was present to bequeath directly to you, deigning even to write them down on two stone tablets. And it was at that time as well that the Eternal commanded me to teach you the statutes and laws and to inveigh upon you actually to obey them all in the land into which you are now crossing so as soon to acquire it as your own.”
There’s something hiding behind those words, something that can provide a gateway into our own observance of Shavuot. Moses was speaking to the new generation of Israelites gathered on the plains of Moab as they prepared to enter the Promised Land. Indeed, the whole point of the decades of wandering in the desert was precisely so that the original generation of Israelites, the ones who crossed the sea and actually stood at Sinai, would die out and be replaced by their own children. So the people to whom Moses was speaking as he prepared to die were specifically not the people who approached the foot of the mountain and stood there as the mountain was ablaze with fire rising to the heart of heaven. Yet Moses speaks to them as though they had been standing there all along. Later, even further along in his final remarks, Moses will make the idea explicit by noting that there stood at Sinai both those physically present and those physically absent. Who he meant to include in the latter group is a bit obscure in that passage, but the larger context makes the meaning clear: there were those who were physically present, but the subsequent generations of as-yet-unborn Israelites were present as well…not as actual men and women, but as the disembodied souls of a nation bundled up in the bond of life everlasting outside of time past, present, and future. And it was thus to those psychically present Israel as well that Moses addressed himself, including those who would only be born in the distant future. Perhaps that was just Moses’s ancient way of nodding to the reasonableness of events existing in the recollective consciousness of a nation long millennia after they retain any trace of historical verifiability: the events in his nation’s past, he seems to be saying, will also ever exist outside of the flow of moments, similar in that to the people whose history they will eventually constitute.
So the bottom line is to stop worrying and embrace the festival as it is. Our Torah exists. Our people exists. Our recollective consciousness certainly exists. (Along with arguing, the Jewish people has elevated the maintenance of ongoing national memory to an art form.) And Shavuot also exists, returning each year in the late spring to remind us to remember that if we were not among those physically standing at the foot of Sinai, then we were surely among those psychically present…at the mountain, in the moment, embedded in the events that more than slightly paradoxically would soon become the defining experience within history of an eternal people that exists outside of time.