Happy summer, everyone! Yes, yes, it’s technically still spring, but apparently, New York City has just decided (or global climate change has dictated) that we should jump straight from winter to summer. Just like the seasons, my life seems to have sped up, and one week from today, I will embark on new adventures that will take me far afield from the city I’ve just begun to call home. Tomorrow, I will watch some of my best friends receive smicha (rabbinic ordination) and be formally recognized as leaders of the Jewish community. It will be many years before I receive a tallit (prayer shawl) and bracha (blessing) as part of the tekes hasmakhah (ordination ceremony), but suddenly, I feel as though a hundred years from now might be too soon.
I am overwhelmed by how quickly my life is changing, and perhaps it is in response that I feel the need to reflect. I have officially finished my first year of rabbinical school. It has been a time of intense growth, and the growing pains have, at times, brought me to my knees. I have been inspired by the way my communities have stepped up to help me face heartbreak, bereavement, and humiliation. I have learned with luminaries of Jewish thought, giants of Talmud study, and the Jewish leaders of today and tomorrow. I have acquired more knowledge than I could process and been humbled every. single. day. by how much I still need to learn. I find myself now in a place of deep gratitude, and I am somehow both more and less sure of my place in the world.
Last week, I was in a very different place, literally and metaphorically. It was Shavuot (often translated as “Pentecost,” though the Christian Pentecost is very different)– my favorite holiday, and I spent it upstate at a summer camp, on a retreat with a fabulous independent Jewish community. Shavuot…I remember calling my dad three years ago to tell him that I wouldn’t be able to answer the phone for two days, and he asked what this holiday entailed.
“Well,” I told him, “we stay up all night learning about Judaism. And we eat cheesecake.”
“You mean it’s your birthday party?” he asked.
Well, kinda. I converted not long before Shavuot 5767 (2007), and Shavuot celebrates revelation, when all Jews accepted the Torah, just as I did in the mikveh (ritual bath). We literally stand during the service as the Ten Commandments are read. We stay up all night beforehand because, so the midrash (explanatory story) goes, the Israelites overslept on the day they were to receive the Torah, and we don’t want to keep God waiting again. We eat dairy foods because once we received the Torah, we needed to learn how to properly slaughter animals and which parts of them we could eat. Our tradition teaches that the soul of every single Jew who ever lived or will live stood at Sinai and accepted the covenant (and, by the way, this is the reason that a popular Jewish matchmaking site is called Saw You at Sinai).
And, because Shavuot celebrates an entire people “converting” to Judaism at the time of revelation, we read the Book of Ruth. Ruth, the Moabite widow of an Israelite, refuses to leave her mother-in-law, Naomi, and utters the phrase that spawned a thousand wedding vows: “Where you go, I will go. Where you dwell, I will dwell. Your people will be my people and your God my God.” There follows a convoluted story involving inheritance, gleaning in the fields, and a lot of uncovering people’s feet, but the end result is that Ruth, the righteous convert, is rewarded by being the great-grandmother of King David.
This year, I approached revelation with no small amount of trepidation. I first celebrated Shavuot with my former partner, and it was the first holiday we celebrated as a couple; we called it our chagaversary (chag=holiday). Shavuot ends the period of semi-mourning called the Omer, which begins on the second night of Passover. This year, mourning so many of my own losses, I made the Omer my thing. This was the first year I did every night of the ritualized counting process. The Omer has all kinds of mystical associations for each day, and I meditated on them. I measured my time just as the ancient Jews measured their grain for the Shavuot sacrifice. And then…I was supposed to give it all up and get back in the game. Receive the Torah. Recommit myself to my people. Revel in revelation.
I didn’t think I could do it. I booked myself onto this retreat as a desperate measure, to take me away from the familiar patters of synagogue and study. I prepared to be miserable and nostalgic and lonely and pathetic.
And then, as it usually does, Torah came to my rescue.
In my first shiur of the night, will-be-a-rabbi-tomorrow Eric Woodward taught us the familiar story of God offering the covenant to other peoples. [What follows is my own paraphrasing, not Eric’s.]
“Children of Esau!” said God, “Do you want the Torah?”
“Sure! Wait…what’s in it?” asked Esau.
“Thou shalt not kill,” said God.
“No, we can’t do that. Killing is inherent to our nature,” said the children of Esau.
The children of Moab and Ammon said no because they couldn’t give up adultery. The children of Ishmael could not bear the prohibition on theft. And the children of Israel?
“Children of Israel!” said God, “Do you want the Torah?”
“Yep,” said Israel.
“Wait…really? Are you sure? Don’t you want to know what’s in it?” asked God.
“Na’aseh v’nishma [We will do and we will hear],” said Israel.
The Israelites accept the Torah and the covenant, and all is well. Right?
Well, not quite. After hearing the voice of God come from the smoking mountain, after hearing the call of the shofar (ram’s horn used for ritual purposes) and trembling in awe, after the receiving the Ten Commandments, after the spectacle of Revelation, the Israelites are told to wait. Moses will ascend the mountain and get the rest of the story (i.e. the other 603 commandments. Yes. Seriously. 603.). And what happens? The people grow anxious. They doubt. They forget that moment of terror and glory, often called the wedding of God to the Jewish people. And, of course, they break their marriage vows: they build a golden calf and worship it.
You see, God offered the Torah to all the other nations and, when asked, presented each with one commandment, the first commandment– the one God knew would be the most difficult for that nation to obey. Israel, though, didn’t ask. And what is Israel’s first commandment? “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”* Belief. Israel would find it most difficult to have faith, to trust that God was there when the mountain stopped smoking and the thunderbolts ceased.
Torah, my colleague explained, hits us where we are weakest. Esau needed to kill, Ishmael to steal, and Israel to doubt. Over and over, from this moment forward, Israel will doubt her God, cry abandonment, and stray from the marriage bed. Israel means “one who struggles with God,” and we’ve earned the right to the moniker. I’ve struggled more than some, perhaps, but only because I’ve chosen to stay in the fight– plenty of Jews give up, seeing no point in endless exhaustion. We cannot “just believe.” It’s a blessing in that it compels us to continue the study and expansion of our tradition, and it is a curse that too often leaves us unable to connect on a simple level when all we want is to cry out. We cannot just accept that God is there, waiting for our call.
This year, God found my weakest points. God forced me to find the tools to fix myself, laid me low to show me where I most needed work. I cannot yet be grateful for this tough love, but about twelve hours after that shiur, with drooping eyelids and frozen feet, I lifted the Torah in the ritual of hagbahah and displayed it to the congregation. I love taking part in the service in this way because it gives me a crutch: the tangible weight of the Torah is a taste of the metaphysical weight of my dedication to Judaism.
As I sat back down, cradling the massive Torah scroll, I intuited precisely the teaching Rabbi Shai Held imparted the next day in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe: to really live the lesson of Shavuot is to make Shavuot less important. We must learn to dedicate ourselves to and receive the lessons of the Torah every day. Judaism, Rav Shai taught, is like marriage: there are moments of high drama and fireworks, but if those are the essential components of satisfaction for you, look elsewhere. Stability, intimacy, a sense of object permanence– these are the rewards of covenant. The Jews accepting the Torah in the desert were living on the adrenaline of split sea and quaking mountain; they were standing under the chuppah (marriage canopy) and feeling a rush of emotion as they looked at their beloved. The wedding is easy. The next 3000 years? Kashrut and Shabbat? The Inquisition and the Talmud? Intermarriage and $25,000 bar mitzvah parties? The Arab-Israeli conflict and denominational divisions? That’s where the going gets tough, where passion falters and dedication must pick up the torch. The easy thing, the natural thing, in any relationship is to drift apart. Choosing every day to grow closer to your partner, human or Divine–that’s a covenant. What a revelation.
*Note that different faith traditions enumerate the Ten Commandments differently; some traditions call this the “prologue” to the Ten Commandments, and some combine it with the statement “you shall have no other gods before me.”