Holiday Reflections: Shavout

| May 14, 2009

The Holiday:
Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai, as well as the spring harvest.

Occurring exactly 50 days after Passover, Shavuot (“weeks” in Hebrew) marks a joyous milestone for the Jewish people.  Seven weeks after fleeing the hardships of Egyptian slavery, the Israelites received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, thus affirming their covenantal relationship with God.  The holiday is also known as the Festival of Weeks.

In addition to its religious significance, Shavuot is connected to the annual grain harvest in ancient Israel, which lasted for seven weeks and was a season of great rejoicing.  On Shavuot, people could begin bringing ritual offerings, known as bikurim, to the Temple in Jerusalem as an enduring sign of their commitment to God.  These offerings were the first and choicest fruits of each crop.  For this reason, other names given to Shavuot include Chag HaKatsir, the Festival of Reaping, and Yom HaBikkurim, Day of the First Fruits.

During Shavuot, Jews read from the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi.  In the narrative, the two women travel together from Moab to Bethlehem; when they reach their destination, they rely for their survival on gleaning from other people’s lands.  The Book of Ruth emphasizes, among other themes, the importance of the biblical injunction that farmers “not reap all the way to the edges” of their fields and that, instead, they leave the gleanings “for the poor and the stranger” (Leviticus 19:9-10).

For Discussion – Our modern-day challenge:
On Shavuot, the Israelites received the Torah, their spiritual “bread.”  It laid out the importance of caring for the less fortunate – of providing them physical bread.  In this – and many other – ways, the Torah makes clear that our spiritual wellbeing depends upon our ability to ensure the physical wellbeing of all people.  How can we put this into practice today?  What are some concrete actions we can take?

Ruth and Naomi manage to survive – and thrive – as a result of their ability to glean.  Why is it important that members of poor communities play a role in their own self-improvement?  How can we encourage their participation as we advocate on their behalf?

Activities for Advocates:
The day of Shavuot is often ushered in by intensive all-night Torah study.  In your community, consider punctuating your study with learning related to global poverty and including suggestions for working to end it.

Host a volunteer drive at your synagogue that encourages community members to sign up for activities geared toward fighting poverty and hunger.  This can be their modern-day “offering”; their donation of time, effort and financial resources can stand in as their “first fruits.”

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