Shavuot: Re-encountering the epiphany

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose holds the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis.

By Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

One of the best known and most beloved sections of the Passover Haggadah includes the words: “In every generation a person must see her/himself as emerging from the servitude of Egypt.”  This well-worn quote serves as a rhetorical device reminding us that the Exodus was not simply a onetime event in human history. Rather, in every era and epoch, we are commanded to see ourselves as toiling to untangle and unencumber ourselves from those actions, behaviors and attitudes that keep us from expanding our myopic worldviews and self-limiting consciousnesses.

What is true for Passover is also true for Shavuot — Zman Matan Toratenu — the holy day of the giving of our holy Torah. For Judaism to survive and flourish, we must make certain that Shavuot is also the holyday of receiving the Torah anew. Of course, this is not a simple process. Unlike the original encounter at Mount Sinai, Shavuot arrives without much fanfare — no thunder, no lighting, no signs, no wonders, no fireworks and no quaking mountains aglow with the blazing presence of Divinity. Blintzes and cheesecake are delicious, but they are hardly sufficient catalysts for fanning the flames of desire to reencounter the all too often obfuscated presence of the Almighty. 

Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, the father of modern Religious Zionism, once poignantly described the Torah as a mirror. He posited that mirrors, though virtually the same design in each period of history, reflect dramatically different images in each generation. What we see in the mirror surely resembles the past, but is also radically new. So too, the epiphany at Sinai that takes place annually in our renewed celebration of Shavuot, is profoundly different each and every year. 

Thus, Shavuot becomes not only the commemoration of historical events that took place some 3,000 years ago. It must also be a “real time” confrontation with what our Torah needs to inspire in our day and age. For Judaism to be relevant to contemporary adherents, it must address the great contemporary existential challenges. Torah must be a true Eitz Chayim, a Tree of Life; an ever-changing, growing, evolving font of wisdom and direction.

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A Judaism based exclusively on the tales, rituals, practices, and customs that only reflect the past — absent space for innovation, creativity and careful consideration of the needs of the present — is destined to irrelevance, contempt and withering. Shavuot, with its message that the Human-Divine encounter and the renewed understandings of Torah that will emerge from this meeting, has the power not only to help refresh and revitalize our tradition, but also ensure that it is referenced and practiced as it was intended to be, Bechol Dov Vador, in every generation. May we each be blessed with the wisdom and courage to reengage with our sacred tradition in this reconsidered light. Amen!

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose is the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona.