This Thursday night is the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks.
It marks the completion of the weeks in between Passover, when we celebrate the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt, and the time of matan Torah, the Israelites’ receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Shavuot is the pinnacle moment of the epic Exodus story. On Passover, the Israelites experienced the miraculous taste of freedom and then as they journeyed on, they received the Torah, a collection of stories and teachings that helped them foster a unique way of life as a newly freed people.
In addition to commemorating this incredible historical legacy, Shavuot is about what it takes to receive Torah. In Jewish tradition, “Torah” is both the Torah, the Five Books of Moses and other sacred texts in the Jewish canon, but it is also the insights and wisdom we glean from the full living of our lives. In this sense, we all have “Torah” to share. And yet, what might it take to realize and accept that wisdom?
In one of my favorite commentaries about the giving of the Torah, the rabbis ask, “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?” After all, it could have been given in a more significant, established place like the Temple in Jerusalem. Nobody even knows where Mount Sinai really is today. It was just one mountaintop in a massive, craggy desert.
The rabbis answer their own question:
“Anyone who makes herself as ownerless as the wilderness is truly able to receive Torah” (Numbers Rabbah 1:7).
What I think this fascinating statement means is that just as the wilderness lies outside the scope of human society, which has its own structure, rules and expectations, and just as the wilderness is open to the natural elements, so too, do we, from time to time, need to let go of our regular, predictable and protected way of being to create more space for new understanding and new experiences to seep in. We need to let go of structure and expectations to be open to what comes.
Sometimes, we willingly and courageously go into the wilderness (for some of us that may be literal; for others, metaphorical) to find greater inner wisdom. However, more often than not, we may be uncomfortably forced through a more unpredictable place as we leave one chapter of our lives and inevitably make our way toward another. This version of wilderness trekking isn’t necessarily glorious, but instead of fighting it so hard as we might, like the Israelites in the desert, we can learn to embrace this temporary, unruly state. We can recognize that there is much Torah, much valuable learning, to be found in the wild places of our lives.
On Shavuot, there is a tradition of staying up late all night to study Torah. It’s like the Jewish version of when you got the latest edition of Harry Potter as a child and stayed up all night to read it so you could talk about it with your friends, and not have it ruined by spoilers. Perhaps the idea of staying up all night seems crazy or perhaps it’s a fun challenge. Either way, the beauty of this moment is that there are many online options to choose from. I highly recommend any number of these awesome opportunities for deeper learning and connection this Shavuot.
If tuning in online just isn’t appealing, try journaling or having a conversation with family and friends about your own wilderness moments.
More than anything, I want to wish us all a chag sameach, a happy holiday full of wild, unpredictable and meaningful Torah.
About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.
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