Rabbi Adi Cohen
May 25/26, 2012
Drash on Parashat Bamidbar / Shavuot
Temple Sinai, Wellington, New Zealand
[A person] who sees large crowds [of people] should say [the following B’racha (blessing):] Baruch [Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam] Chacham Harazim (Blessed are You Adonai, our God, sovereign of the universe, Who is wise [to know] secrets), because their faces are not similar to each other and their minds are not similar to each other. (Tosefta, b’rachot 6,5)
The last thing I would expect from a leader who is trying to build a nation is to divide the people back into their core families. And yet this is what Moses is commanded to do: “And Adonai spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying: Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names…”
Is there a reason for that? Yes, I think there is. There is a huge difference between individuals “being as one” and individuals “thinking as one”. The people of Israel left Egypt as slaves. They have received the Torah as B’nei Israel and now it is time for them to become a nation.
The promise that was made to Abraham many years ago is just about to become a reality, but as we all know, reality has it price. How do you maintain your family tradition in your new congregation? Do you still drink Turkish coffee with cardamom while the others are eating Kigel? Do you keep on listening to Klei-zmers while for the others, Lady Ga-Ga is already old news?
By dividing B’nei Israel around the Tent of meeting, each tribe, divided to families, Moses is stating an important social rule – we are together as one but we are not the same. Look around you, every family is unique, just like you!
As we are about to finish to count the days of the Omer, Shavuot brings in a different approach to the same narrative.
Shavuot is a festival of many names. In the Bible Shavuot is called the Festival of Weeks – Chag Hashavuot, also Festival of Reaping- Chag Hakatsir, and Day of the First Fruits –Yom Habikkurim. The Talmud refers to Shavuot as Atzeret - referring to the prohibition against work on this holiday and to the conclusion of the holiday and season of Passover. (Since Shavuot occurs 50 days after Pesach it is also called Pentecost).
During the 16th century Shavuot got another name - Chag Matan Torah (the Festival for Receiving the Torah) and with it a new costume - Tikkun Leil Shavuot - "Rectification for Shavuot Night". Its origins are in the Midrash, which relates that the night before the Torah was given, the Israelites overslept and Moses had to wake them up because God was already waiting on the mountaintop. In keeping with the custom of engaging in all-night Torah study, the Ari - Rabbi Isaac Luria, the leading Kabbalist of the 16th century, arranged a special service for the evening of Shavuot.
The many names of the festival reflect the different ways the sages and the Rabbis understood the role of the festival in their respective generations. Today we need to ask ourselves the same question regarding our understanding of it, with past influences including an agricultural day and a symbol of the "Jewish time"; a night of study and a day of re- embracing the Torah into our life. But now what?
I think that in our time we need to bring another dimension into the Jewish equation, Shavuot as a festival of faith. When we engage with the words of the Torah or with the words of prayer we need to ask ourselves - what do we believe in? What does it mean in a post - modern era "to believe in God"? What does it mean to be part of a religious community and not just part of the Jewish peoplehood? Each one should seek and find his or her own answer. Once again, at Chag Matan Torah, we need to stand, to stand tall, at Mount Sinai, as congregations, as families and as individuals and to find our own unique path. We need to look around and bless over the diversity of traditions.
We need to have a little…
You may laugh at all the dreams
Which I, the dreamer, can weave,
Laugh because I believe in man;
For in you I still believe.
Yet my soul still yearns for freedom
To no golden calf betrayed,
Because I still believe in man,
So strong is his spirit made.
Laugh that I still believe in friends
And I yet will find a heart
To share my hope as his own hope,
In my joy and pain take part.
And I believe in the future,
However distant the day,
When nation shall bless each nation
And in peace shall make their way.
May people, too, shall flower again;
Generation shall arise,
Their fetters of iron cast away,
A new light before their eyes.
Tchernikowski (translation taken from RSGB Siddur "Forms of prayer")
May we all have a meaningful Chag Shavuot !
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