Late this month we’ll reach the festival of Shavuot. When the Temple stood Shavuot was one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three big pilgrimage-festivals when we would travel en masse to Jerusalem to make offerings at the Temple. Shavuot is the culmination of the seven weeks of counting the Omer, and was once a harvest festival. (It still is, among Jews who farm.) But today Shavuot is best known as the holiday when we celebrate receiving Torah at Sinai.
One of my favorite midrash teaches that all of us were present at Sinai to receive the revelation of Torah. The soul of every Jew who has ever lived and will ever live: all of us were there together for that divine broadcast or sacred download. Another midrash teaches that God spoke in a single Voice, and we each heard something different — perhaps we each heard the revelation we most needed, or we each heard in a language that we could understand.
“Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” says the sage Ben Bag Bag about Torah. The miracle of Torah is that every generation finds some of what we need there. In rereading the words of Torah each year we grow and change along with our understanding of what those words mean to us here and now. Torah is said to be written in black fire on white fire: the black fire is the words of the Torah, and the white fire is the space that contains and surrounds the words.
Or — the black fire is words, and the white fire is silence. Or — the black fire is the voices of men throughout our history, and the white fire is the voices of the rest of us. Or — the black fire is the keva (form or structure) and the white fire is kavannah (intention and heart). Or — the black fire is written Torah and the white fire is oral Torah. Or — the black fire is the Torah as we’ve received it, and the white fire is midrash, creativity, new interpretations, new understandings…
This year’s Shavuot celebration is on the theme “Voices.” We’re once again partnering with my friend and colleague R. David Markus and his City Island community for Zoom Shavuot. Join us on Zoom on Thursday, May 25, for festival ma’ariv (evening services) with hallel (psalms of praise), followed by a poetry reading from acclaimed author Rodger Kamenetz, followed by an evening of late-night learning that will bring some of the tradition’s voices to life.
Right after Shavuot, I’ll be heading to Israel for ten days on a trip planned for members of R. David’s community and for members of R. Heidi Hoover’s B’Shert community in Brooklyn. One other member of the CBI community is joining me on that trip, as is my son. I look forward to dipping into the spiritual wellspring of that sacred land — and to bringing back whatever new inspirations, melodies, teachings, experiences, and questions that trip will provide.
The other thing I love about the idea that all of our souls were together at Sinai is the reminder that Torah belongs to all of us. Our tradition belongs to all of us. One especially poetic midrash holds that each of our souls is a letter in the supernal Torah, the holy essence of Torah on high. And that means each of us is crucial and necessary in order for Torah to be complete… just as each of us is crucial and necessary in order for our community to be whole.
I am so grateful for every one of you, and for the unique spark that each person brings to the Torah of who we are at CBI.
See you at Sinai!
— Rabbi Rachel