The holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, traditionally commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, seven weeks after the Jews left Egypt. In traditional rabbinic teaching, it brings the Passover season to a climax. The Exodus, celebrated on Passover, marks the liberation of the Jews from bondage into freedom, so the rabbis teach, but Shavuot marks their birth as a nation, bound together under God’s law, the Book of Books.
Jews around the world will mark the start of the holiday next Tuesday evening. If history is any guide, though, the proportion of Jews that turns out for the festival will not be great — smaller, in fact, than for any major holiday on the Jewish calendar, with the possible exception of Shemini Atzeret (look it up). Shavuot simply hasn’t caught on with recent generations of Jews.
There’s no shortage of reasons. Shavuot lacks the pageantry and emotional power of Yom Kippur, the family warmth and festive ceremony of Hanukkah and Passover, even the restful rhythm of Sabbath. Instead of groaning Seder tables filled with savory delights, it brings blintzes and tea. Instead of dreidels, piles of gifts and festive candelabras, it offers an all-nighter of Torah study. Instead of pondering the deep meaning of sin, redemption and moral cleansing, we get to review the rules. When you get down to it, Shavuot feels to most of us like the Ted Baxter of Jewish holidays: badly timed and self-inflated.
But that need not be the end of it. Somehow, logic dictates, the Torah must be worth celebrating. The Good Book has fascinated billions of people over the past 30-odd centuries, not because it is one thing, clear and perfect, but precisely because it is many things to many people. Looked at one way, it is a code of personal behavior; turn it just slightly, and it is a blueprint for society. Seen from another angle, it is a tale of family intrigue, jealousy, betrayal and reconciliation; turn it yet again, and it is the tale of a nation’s struggles, triumphs and disasters. All these readings, and hundreds more, have spawned their own schools of devotees and champions, who find in their Scripture a guiding light.
That multitude of facets and secrets is the wonder and glory of the Torah. And it is the tragedy of the Torah, too. These schools seem with distressing regularity to end up convinced that their reading is the one true and essential understanding of the Torah — and by extension, of God’s plan for humanity — and that all other readings are wrong, or worse, evil. Thus begin the centuries and millennia of feuding, wars, mass torture, beheadings and more wars, ending up with the mess we’re in today. Seen in that way, it’s not hard to understand the plain-thinking individual with no ax to grind who looks at the whole sorry history and concludes that the book itself is the problem, and wants nothing to do with it. Passover and freedom? Sure. Yom Kippur and repentance? Maybe. Shavuot? Forget it. It’s suddenly a lot easier to understand the Israelite who was standing at the foot of the fiery mountain and thinking: Hey, I raced through the desert for seven weeks, and all I got was this lousy blintz? I’ll take the golden calf. At least it’s shiny.
But turn it again. Wars, torture and deceit didn’t begin with Moses and his Book, nor even with Abraham and his Big Idea. That nasty stuff is as old as the first caveman who learned how to sharpen a stick or heave a big rock. Moses’ contribution was, if anything, to try to make sense of it all by giving it a narrative. Close readers of the Bible — those who aren’t busy calling their troops to battle — understand it as a tale of God, the Ordering Force of the Cosmos, offering humankind a ladder to climb up from the muck, a path away from its baser instincts in order to come closer to the angels, and to God’s own perfection, as suggested by the likes of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Micah. For these kindly theologians, the Bible is the story of God trying to tame humanity.
And then there’s the modern reading: the Bible as a tale of suffering humanity, intrepidly making its way through a world not of its own making, fighting through chaos, irrationality and catastrophe to reach a promised land, lose it and win it back again. This is the Bible of classic Zionism, of Zionism as it was before it was hijacked by revisionists and mystics, the Zionism of Pinsker and Herzl, of Jabotinsky and Brenner and Syrkin and Ben-Gurion. Their Bible was the epic tale of human beings seizing destiny in their own hands and creating history by force of will. This is the Bible of Moses handing down a code of simple wisdom and justice: Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t stiff your worker his pay, don’t pick your fruit until it’s ready. It’s the Bible of Amos railing against the oppression of the poor, of Jeremiah warning against pointless, unwinnable wars. It’s the Bible of young men girding up to go off and defend their homeland and then coming home to harvest their fruit and love their wives.
This may not have been the Bible preached from pulpits through the centuries of holy wars and inquisitions, but it is certainly the Bible that their suffering flocks read by flickering candlelight each night, searching for the meaning and courage to get up the next morning to another day of woe. And, closer to home, it is the Bible that inspired thousands of young men and women a century ago to leave their homes and reclaim the Land of Israel, defying God and giving the Jewish people one last chance.
The Bible readings of Ben-Gurion and Brenner are not easily accessible to the average reader today, but a new book, published this spring, does a nice job of bringing this People’s Torah home for a 21st-century sensibility. Titled “Joseph’s Bones,” written by Jerome M. Segal, the University of Maryland philosopher, controversial peace activist and volunteer Hebrew school teacher, it reframes the first six books of the Bible — Genesis through Joshua — as a subversive, underground tale of the Jewish People’s loyalty to Joseph, the visionary economist, Egyptian prime minister, forgiving brother, loving son and savior of his people. It’s compelling, flawed, transforming, infuriating reading, but it drives home the Torah that Ben-Gurion and Brenner wanted us to learn: not the tale of an angry God trying to tame a faithless Jewish people, but of a faithful, patient Jewish people gradually taming an angry God.
It’s an idea worth pondering, and next Tuesday night is the right time to start. We at the Forward wish our readers a happy holiday.