I am from a somewhat traditional Jewish family, and yet the festival of Shavuos is completely unknown to us. We always had Seder on Pesach and fasted on Yom Kippur, but we never did anything to celebrate the giving of the Torah. All my friends did the same. I would have thought that this would be an important event to commemorate. So why is Shavuos the forgotten festival?
The reason why Shavuos is the least celebrated Jewish festival is a startling one. It is the least demanding. The easier the festival, the less it is observed.
The most difficult festival to observe is Yom Kippur, on which we abstain from food and drink altogether and pray all day. And yet, this rather grueling holyday is the most widely observed. The easiest festival to observe is Shavuos. All that is expected of us is to have a day of rest and eat lots of cheesecake. How hard can that be? And this pleasurable festival is the most neglected.
There's a surprising lesson there. We value things that require effort. If something comes too easy, it is taken lightly. But if it's demanding, it is more compelling. A tough diet will be taken seriously. A difficult work project will be given more attention. We invest ourselves where we feel what we are doing actually matters. When we are given serious responsibilities we step up to the role.
You would expect the opposite to be true. Indeed, there have been well meaning voices in Jewish history that have suggested that the best way to stem the tide of assimilation is by easing the laws of Judaism to make it more appealing. It makes sense. Lower the bar, lighten the burden, and people will be more willing to stay Jewish. But the result was the opposite. The Jewish movements that demanded less from their constituents have more often than not been a gateway out of Judaism rather than a way in. Quite simply, if Judaism asks nothing of me, then that's what Judaism will get.
We don't need to dilute Judaism to make it attractive. We just need to make it accessible. Jewish souls are thirsting for a Judaism that will ask something of them, demand their allegiance to a higher cause, stretch their minds to think deeper, challenge them to live with a sense of purpose and mission.
Perhaps this is one reason why the kabbalists introduced the custom of staying awake all night on Shavuos. Just eating cheesecake was too easy. Let's ask ourselves to give something up on Shavuos to show that it really matters to us. Fluffy Judaism is a tranquilliser. A demanding Judaism keeps us wide awake.
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Question of the Week:
I have to admit, I am angry. I was brought up Jewish, attended a Jewish school, and have only known Judaism as my religion. Now I am told I have to convert, because my mother never formally became Jewish. Isn't it a little unfair that all my life I was more Jewish than my friends, was subjected to anti-Semitism, and then I am told I need to convert?
I completely understand your frustration. It can't be easy to hear that you need to convert to your own religion. But please don't take it personally. This is not a reflection on you. The entire Jewish nation went through exactly what you are going through now.
After leaving Egypt, where they suffered as slaves and were tormented for being Jewish, the Israelites reached Mount Sinai. There they were told they had to formally accept the Torah, and convert to Judaism by immersing in a mikvah.
They could've had the same complaint as yours. We've always been Jewish, we have even suffered for it, and now we're told we need to become Jewish.
Indeed they were already Jewish in the ethnic sense, but they had not yet become Jewish in the religious sense. They were born into the Jewish clan, but they had not yet committed to the Jewish mission. Only by sincerely accepting the Torah did they take on the complete Jewish identity in body and soul.
The Israelites of old had a moment of truth. Am I ready to stand before G-d and commit myself to being Jewish? Not just for a day or a week or a year. Not just for my lifetime. For generations. And they said yes.
That power of that moment still reverberates to this day. All Jews alive today are descended from a mother who converted to Judaism, who took that plunge, either at Mount Sinai or sometime since then.
Now you have your moment of truth. You can be culturally and ethnically Jewish, as you already are. Or you can stand at your own Sinai and say yes to G-d.
Put aside the emotion and take this decision seriously. If you don't go ahead, you leave things hanging for your children and theirs. But if you do it, your commitment is forever, for all generations, once and for all.
Sources: See Exodus 19:10, Rambam Hilchos Issurei Biah 13
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Question of the Week:
What is the Lag Baomer Parade about?
The first Lag Baomer Parade was in New York in 1953. And it shook the Jewish world.
This was just a few short years after the war. In those times, many Jews lived by the saying, "incognito ergo sum" - we can only survive as Jews if we keep our Jewishness to ourselves. A public display of Judaism was asking for trouble. Lie low, don't make waves, keep your head down and try to blend in as best you can.
Jews went to great lengths to hide their Jewishness. A kippa would never be worn in public. Mezuzas had to be almost invisible if there at all. Jewish names were changed to sound less Jewish, and you wouldn't dare speak Yiddish in the street.
But it didn't work. Even if Chaim Greenstein changed his name to Hank Goyishman, he still wasn't allowed to join the country club. Everyone saw right through it.
This culture of hiding was an understandable reaction to the horrors of the Holocaust. But it only perpetuated the damage. The next generation learnt that Jewishness is a badge of shame, and many opted not to wear that badge altogether, leaving the Jewish fold.
Along came the Rebbe, himself a survivor, with a radically different response. He taught that we will only be respected if we respect ourselves. And that means being proud of who we are regardless of what anyone else thinks. This approach is epitomized by the Lag Baomer Parade - Jewish children taking to the streets and marching in pride, waving banners promoting mitzvah observance and celebrating being Jewish, publically and for all to see. The Rebbe's answer to defensive and self-conscious Judaism was to offer another version that was open, positive and unapologetic. And it worked.
Thousands of children have marched in hundreds of Lag Baomer Parades since that first one. And no child will ever forget the life-changing feeling of singing through the streets wearing our Judaism on our sleeves, waving happily to passers by. We don't need to hide anymore. The haters will hate, but we don't. We love being Jewish, and we are not afraid to say it. There is no greater victory of our people than that.