I scarcely heard of Shavuot in my ultra-Reform childhood: it was a delightful discovery of my mature years. Creamy or cheesy delicacies define its culinary appeal, while the weirdness of tikkun leil (late-night observance) adds a mystical vibe. For those who read Ruth at Shavuot, the holiday particularly spotlights the contributions of women and converts.
Unlike some beloved Jewish (or secular) holidays, Shavuot doesn’t have a colorful origin story. There’s no elaborate narrative about the first Shavuot. All we have is Moses climbing the mountain and descending with the commandments. We may reenact it in our religious school, with foamboard tablets, but there aren’t a lot of supporting characters or ironic plot twists. It’s a one-man, one-act play.
The dramatic intrigue of this holiday is not in the scripture, but in our own lives. Every year, we go back up the same Sinai, but each year we bring down a different Torah. The letters and words may be unchanged, but the meaning is always new. The sins that enticed me in my youth are not the ones that tempt me today, and the advantages I felt gratitude for in boyhood are not the gifts I’m thankful for now.
My Torah is evolving.
Perhaps Shavuot is best appreciated as a festival of learning. Above all, Torah is a thing to study (Mishnah Pe’ah 1:1). And if the most powerful way to learn something is to teach it (Talmud Ta’anit 7a), then faculty ought to be the greatest Shavuot revelers. Invite your favorite professor to your kiddush.
At my Morgantown shul, my contract requires me to provide adult education, but if I offer it at the synagogue I don’t get much turnout. So I’ve taken to teaching at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), a program serving seniors and retirees, with volunteer instructors. Mostly I’ve covered Bible topics, attracting a few Jewish students and a lot of churchgoing Christians. The Christians are already familiar with the scripture, but they’re curious what a rabbi will say about Adam and Eve, or David and Goliath. Or Shavuot, which they know as “Pentecost.”
After many Bible-based curricula, this spring I tried something different: a course on The Modern Jewish Crisis, or why our great-grandparents left Russia and what happened next. The assassination of the czar in 1881 — blamed on the Jews, of course — reversed Russia’s tepid experiment with liberalism. Our people fled to the land of Israel, launching the Zionist saga; to central Europe, inadvertently reawakening antisemitism there; or to America, enriching the New World with their many talents. Or they stayed in Russia, with high hopes (later crushed) for a bright revolutionary future.
History is a scary thing to teach. The Bible is big, but finite; history is effectively infinite. What do you focus on? How do you connect the dots? No two people will handle it alike. And I wasn’t sure Christians would be interested in all that Jewish suffering. But to my surprise, I got a huge turnout.
In its own way, history is Torah: the Torah of transgression, the Torah of cautionary examples. Where God is ignored, or invoked insincerely, all the commandments are broken. Our people were robbed and murdered in the pogroms and the Holocaust and the Gulag. They were raped and slandered, their sabbath was profaned, their property was coveted. These crimes were sanctified by idolatries like divine right, racial purity or the dictatorship of the proletariat. The whole Ten Commandments — or, rather, the consequences of neglecting them — are in The Modern Jewish Crisis.
At the end of the term, the students asked what I planned to teach next. My occasional digressions during this course, my attempts to briefly summarize the Jewish backstory in premodern Europe or the Middle Ages, suggest possible topics for another syllabus. Alas, it’s not enough to list names and dates and places: You have to teach why it matters. That’s the hard part, but I’m working on it.
This Shavuot, climbing the mountain once more, I reflect on the purpose of my rabbinate. Am I meant to be a pulpit rabbi, a life cycles rabbi, a hospital rabbi, a social justice rabbi? All of those, in their season. But my role as an education rabbi looms largest at the moment. May God show me the didactic Decalogue. PJC
Rabbi Joe Hample is the spiritual leader of the Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, West Virginia. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Clergy Association.