Shavuot, the MAX and our new Peace Pole

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Tuesday, May 30, 2017 / 5 Sivan 5777

Summary: Rabbi Kosak shares some thoughts about the holiday of Shavuot, the recent killings on the Portland MAX and our dedication of our new Peace Pole at 6:30 pm today.

Reflections on Shavuot

I write these words as we communally prepare to enter the last of our three festivals, Shavuot. Although it commemorates the giving of our holy Torah, Shavuot is one of the least observed of the major pilgrimage holidays. Different reasons are offered. Here are a few explanations that have been put forward:

  1. It is a holiday without a recognizable symbol–although even the youngest of Jews has a heartfelt connection to our sacred book, there is no unique symbol in the way that Passover has the seder or Sukkot has the harvest hut (the sukkah). Visual symbols spark our memories and emotions. They are both the message and the medium.
  2. Another theory argues that the essential message about Shavuot is our responsibility to uphold the mitzvot, the commandments–and most of us tend to shy away from reminders about our duties.
  3. The earliest ritual that the Torah mentions in regard to Shavuot is the mitzvah to bring new wheat to the ancient Temple. That is not something we can perform anymore. It is also true that few of us live agricultural lives anymore.
  4. Finally, Shavuot has the bad fortune of falling in late May to early June. Perhaps as the school year winds down and summer approaches, people are less focussed on their Judaism.

Here’s another possibility. Shavuot’s essential religious activity is to engage in sustained study of Torah on the evening of the holiday (although originally a kabbalistic practice, it has since become widespread). For many of us, maintaining our concentration for any length of time becomes harder and harder.

As a society, we have grown more accustomed to the constant interruptions of our devices. In addition, we have catered to this reduced capacity to focus by presenting easier concepts in shorter formats. Instagram and Twitter feeds may be the most obvious examples, but almost all of our forms of communication have become truncated.

This trend is disturbing, because what makes Judaism virtually unique among world religions is its approach to text study and religious law. Our tradition embraces complexity, uncertainty and high-level reasoning. Modern life increasingly threatens our ability to transmit authentic Judaism.

After the MAX murders

Last night I was invited to speak at the Ramadan Big Tent celebration hosted at Muslim Educational Trust. The event was organized by a terrific young woman, Sadaf, who just finished dental school (is anyone in need of a general dentist in their practice?) and numerous other folks in their twenties who want to share their customs with their neighbors.

On everyone’s minds were the terrible murders that had just occurred on our rapid transit system. I shared a couple of Jewish concepts (though not inherently Jewish) that seemed useful. The first is our idea of mesirat hanefesh, or self-sacrifice to a higher cause. Because it is harder to identify commonly held values in our fragmented society, we have called Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, Ricky John Best and Micah David-Cole Fletcher heroes for standing up to the racist onslaught of Jeremy Joseph Christian.

There’s a problem calling these three brave men heroes. The heroic is a special category that does not apply to most of us. In a certain way, by highlighting certain people as heroic, we remove from ourselves the burden of living up to that same standard. Yet Judaism does not allow us that luxury. We are commanded “lo ta’amod al dam rayecha!” “Do not stand idly by while another human being is in jeopardy.”

Mesirat Hanefesh reminds us that our own comfort, desires or self-interest can not be our bedrock value. Any decent society has to inculcate our need for mutual sacrifice. While we don’t necessarily have to put our lives at risk (there’s a makhlokhet, a question about whether we must put our own lives at risk), we are required to exert ourselves to protect and help others. That is almost an axiomatic definition of the social contract–we labor on behalf of others who labor in turn for us. This is not a critique of capitalism–we can and ought to have reasonable self-interest. But as Hillel famously said, “If I am for myself alone, what am I?”

For those of us who are moved to support the victims’ families as quickly as possible, here is a link to some organizations gathering funds. The Jewish community is organizing to do the same, but that probably won’t occur until after Shavuot. As of last night the Muslim community had already raised a half million dollars for the families of the slain and injured men.

Peace Pole

I’m sure you join with me in sending out prayers to the families and to our city as a whole. Now more than ever, our peace pole dedication seems more important. If we best observe and promote those values that have a tangible symbol, then our peace pole is an important reminder.

With my blessings of peace,

Rav D

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