What’s the Meaning of Shavuot?

Tonight at sundown the holiday of Shavuot begins, inaugurating a festival of learning and cheesecake-eating that commemorates the day that Israel received the Torah.

The enlightenment that is the Exodus might be extraordinary. It might even be miraculous. But it is not unique. Nothing new came into the world with the Exodus; it merely rearranged what already existed. Revelation, however, is an event. The giving of the Torah introduces something that has never before existed, and thus shakes the very foundations of existence.

Our Torah is a revolutionary, cultural critique. As we celebrate Shavuot, let us honour this gift of Torah by appreciating its distinctiveness and maintaining our own distinctiveness through commitment to its Covenant.

The goal of Shavuot night is not Torah learning — one can study Torah any day of the year. The goal is to experience something of the radical encounter with God at Sinai… In the Torah’s telling, the encounter with God was an immersive experience.

Can Shavuot Help Us Get Along with One Another?

At a time of divisiveness in Israel and in America, does the holiday of Shavuot have something to teach us about unity?

We know that we all want a Jewish and democratic country, we just differ on what constitutes a country so created. Along comes the holiday of Shavuot to remind us of our power to move to the center and the fact that one day for sure were a united people.

…our Jewish tradition provides us with an approach to resist and overcome the grave dangers of polarization, one that is particularly resonant as we approach the holiday of Shavuot. The key, I believe, is to replace binary identities with multiple identities and to recognize that all of these identities, while they may compete, ultimately also serve a singular purpose.

The balance between singularity and plurality can be traced to Sinai.

The middle ground lies in observance of Shavuot each and every year after Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. If all Jewish souls that will ever live stood at Har Sinai, then each of us carries within us the marker of our own personal encounter with God, even if we could not sustain that encounter for long.

What Does Shavuot Teach Us About Conversion?

On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of Ruth, the first convert to Judaism. In honor of Ruth, here are three takes on Shavuot and conversion:

As we read the story of Ruth this Shavuot, let us think of those who are saying “your people will be my people, and your God, my God” today. The Torah could not be clearer: converts are to be embraced. It is in our collective interest to create avenues for conversion that are open, streamlined and welcoming and to push back against efforts to close the gates of conversion before those who wish to walk through them.

One in six American Jews are converts, according to a recent Pew survey, and thousands convert every year—across denominations, and not just for marriage, but for all sorts of motivations including seeking a different kind of spirituality or belonging, and an ineffable sense of returning to something that was theirs from the start.

Farber noted that there are mitzvot to love only three things: God, fellow Jews and converts. That latter mitzvah is repeated no less than 36 times in the Torah. “That’s amazing! It shows you the placement of this mitzvah in the context of the Jewish canon. But today people are afraid of converts,” Farber said.

Today’s Hot Issues

What’s the Meaning of Shavuot? Can Shavuot Help Us Get Along with One Another? What Does Shavuot Teach Us About Conversion?