Shavuot celebrates the receiving of Torah. But it was not always so.
Torah relays the unfolding of Creation and the Jewish people who enter into a Covenant with G-d and then journey to the Promised Land. It was an arduous journey by a people struggling with post-traumatic stress, fears, insecurities and ambivalence. More than once they petulantly threaten to return to Egypt, rhapsodic in their fantasies of the comfort they once had in Egypt. Moses, the supportive leader, nudges them on, along with G-d’s miracles, ensuring food, water, and occasional punishments to encourage faith and tenacity. The desert becomes an alchemic process where the people must mature spiritually.
After crossing the Sea of Reeds their first stop is Mount Sinai to personally meet HaShem and receive the Ten Commandments and Torah. After three days of preparation they “Saw thunder and the flames, the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain; the people saw and trembled…they said to Moses, ‘You speak to us and we shall hear, let G-d not speak to us les we die.’” So Moses goes to the top of the mountain, on their behalf, to receive the tablets and Torah, returning forty days later to find a raucous celebration of a molten calf. In his rage, Moses smashes the tablets, incredulous that after receiving the gift of freedom and entering into the Covenant, the people express the ultimate rejection of HaShem, to not only refuse to listen to G-d’s voice but to replace G-d with an idol. In fact Moses receives a second set of tablets and the rabbis teach he returns on Yom Kippur, highlighting the theme of forgiveness central to this Holy Day. So how is it we celebrate with such a stain in our past?
Originally Shavuot was a celebration of the first grain harvest, Chag HaKatzir, and the offering of first fruits, Yom HaBikurim. Then we’re instructed to rejoice after counting seven weeks since Passover. Shavuot means weeks, so the name Chag Shavuot. We are told to bring sacrificial offerings and have a day of rest, a holy convocation for G-d, expressing gratitude and joy.
When the Holy Temple was destroyed in 70 CE and the people were dispersed, the rabbis saw an opportunity to reshape an agricultural and sacrificial religion into one focused on study, prayer, and mitzvot. The Torah became the center of Jewish life so celebrating its gift of G-d’s words and teachings, as a treasure, became an essential feature of this holiday. What better way than to align Shavuot with Passover, the liberation from slavery, with the goal of receiving laws and statutes that would create a container for our new found freedom and a relationship with the Holy One.
The rabbis, in their genius, found a way to heal the wounds of rejection and redeem the sin of the people. By celebrating receiving Torah, each year, we reframe history, turning what once was a blemish on the people into a reaffirmation of loyalty and partnership. As a metaphor for a wedding, Shavuot creates a re-commitment ceremony with G-d (the groom), and the people Israel, (the bride), and Torah binding their relationship.
On Shavuot we also read the Book of Ruth, a woman who voluntarily follows the laws and the G-d of her mother-in-law, after her husband has died even though she is a non-Jew. In her zealous behavior, we are reminded of ‘choosing,’ once again, our own treasured tradition. Ruth, considered the first convert, is rewarded for her righteousness by becoming the great grandmother of King David who is believed to have died on Shavuot.
It is also the custom to study all night from the Prophet Ezekiel as well as passages from Torah, reinforcing its place in our hearts. Some communities pass the Torah to each person so they can have a personal moment of recommitment, while others unroll the whole Torah, holding it up, to witness every glorious letter.
As someone who sees Judaism through the lens of healing and nurturing spiritual wholeness, I believe we learn there is a great psycho-spiritual healing in reframing difficult and traumatic events so they can be re-visited, honored, and even celebrated.
T’rumah begins the odyssey of one of the most glorious projects in the history of our people, the creation of the Mishkan, a dwelling place where G-d and the human would meet. The word itself comes from the root reish vav mem meaning to elevate, an offering, or a gift. It was only two portions earlier, however, in Yitro, that this relationship was tentative at best. After G-d’s mighty and powerful appearance, “Thunder and lightning…heavy cloud…sound of the shofar was very powerful and the entire people…shuddered….Mount Sinai was smoking…Hashem descended…in the fire; the entire mountain shuddered…the shofar grew stronger…the people saw and trembled,” the people stood from afar. They said to Moses, “You speak to us and we shall hear; let G-d not speak to us lest we die.” The meeting did not go so well. The people terrified reject G-d. They don’t want to see, hear, or be in this Presence. Let Moses be the one to speak to G-d. Let Moses be the one with the contact. Following their traumatic response, Moses goes close to the thick cloud, which is the place of G-d, leaving the people behind.
Once in G-d’s Presence Moses receives the ordinances and then the instructions, “…let them take for Me a portion.” But immediately we hear a hesitation, there is a qualifier, “From every person whose heart motivates him…” I have always found this to be an interesting compound sentence; give an instruction and then turn it into invitation – ‘do the following but only if you’re motivated to do so.’ Why does G-d hesitate and couch the demand with ‘if they’re willing.’ G-d doesn’t falter at any other time when S/He makes demands. When G-d wants something, G-d commands it, and if the expectations are not met there are consequences. What’s going on here? Is this a test? Why command and then pull back? What’s in the mind of the Divine at this moment? What does G-d need and why turn this into an invitation?
The rupture between the Israelites and G-d at Sinai always struck me as incredibly poignant. This meeting was fraught with so much anticipation and preparation. After watching G-d’s awesome signs and wonders, the miraculous crossing at the Sea, and extraordinary gift of manna, their expectations must have been very high. To finally meet the source of their blessed gift of freedom must have assuredly been welcome. But the power and enormous unbounded Presence was more than they could handle. One can imagine the disappointment that G-d feels and the pain of rejection at this moment. This called for some deep introspection and perhaps a totally different approach. I can’t help but think of Elijah’s meeting with G-d, years later, in the “Kol D’mama Daka,” the still small voice; a fraction of the Sinai experience.
At this moment in time the Mishkan became the conduit for healing. It not only would be a project that would repair the PTSD that was such an integral part of the slave experience, but it would also be a channel to heal the relationship between the people and G-d. This was a “tzim tzum” moment, a way for G-d to contract and make it possible for the people to find a way back, feeling a new level of safety and comfort in G-d’s presence. G-d didn’t just want blind obedience but hoped that there would be some desire and motivation to return and take the risk to come close once again.
T’rumah is an offering, a gift. Receiving it from those who would give with a willing heart, “Yidvenu Libo,” repaired the pain of rejection, restoring a pathway to a new and promising relationship, elevating both the one who received it and the one who gave it.
Parshat Yitro highlights one of the most important events in our history – the meeting of the Israelites with G-d, creation of a covenant, and the formation of a people as well as receiving the ultimate guide for our behavior, Torah and the Ten Commandments. Unlike other peoples of the world all of this is solidified before even entering and owning the land. Yet, what makes this parshah so unusual is that it is named after ‘non-Israelite,’ Jethro, Priest of Midian, and of course, Moshe’s father-in-law. You might expect the heading to be ‘Yirah,’ Awe, instead of ‘Yitro.’ But despite this extraordinary moment, it is he who claims the title. Why?
Yitro can be translated as “his abundance” or “his remaining.” The portion opens with Yitro hearing of the great Exodus and the Israelite G-d emanating acts of wonder. Aware that Moshe and the people have crossed the sea and ‘remain’ at Sinai, he takes it upon himself to bring Tziporah, Gershom, and Eliezer, Moshe’s family, to Sinai. They should not ‘remain’ in Midian any longer; they should be reunited with Moshe and the people. He then expresses his sense of ‘abundance,’ joy, gratitude, and blessing for G-d’s greatness, with multiple sacrificial offerings. Following these important acts, he turns to Moshe, after watching him perform his duties as leader and is moved with an empathic response. He gives Moshe the following advice, “The thing that you do is not good, you will surely become worn out—you as well as this people…you will not be able to do it alone.” He suggests that Moshe handle major issues and assign “Anshe Chayil,” men of valor, (sound familiar, Proverbs 31, Aishet Chayil, A Woman of Valor) to take on supportive roles. The root ‘chool,’ means to be ‘strong, firm, durable, have integrity and virtue;’ in other words, a people of ‘valor.’ “Appoint men of accomplishment, G-d fearing men of truth who despise money” to judge, in smaller groups, minor disputes so they can share the work. In other words, create an effective government (democracy in its infancy) to support Moshe’s work as leader. Yitro teaches us all to delegate and be very discerning about whom one chooses to share the workload. We are also reminded in Proverbs 9 and Psalm 111 that, “The beginning of wisdom is the awe of Adonai,” “T’chilat Chochmah Yirat Adonai.” Yitro comes to Sinai with awe of G-d and he leaves sharing wisdom for all.
Chapter 18 has a universal theme. It is more than appropriate for a non-Israelite, with such wisdom, to be acknowledged and honored in our Torah. His teaching applies to every person in a leadership role—no matter what faith, color, or gender. Whether running a family, an institution, a company, a city, a state, or even a country, the Torah teaches the importance of finding skilled people with elevated values to share the work of a leader. I can think of one person, the leader of this country and the free world, who could benefit from such wisdom. Perhaps his orthodox ‘son-in-law,’ who has such an important portfolio in this administration, could teach him some Torah.
“The Flood We Need”
It is Thursday, September 27, and I am riveted by the Senate hearing testimonies of Dr. Ford and Mr. Kavanaugh. More remarkable are the senators, divided by their political motivations – one side requesting a deeper investigation, the other satisfied that their candidate had demonstrated all they needed to know. Having been violated 3 times in sexual assault I resonated with the insidious life-long impact on Dr. Ford and appalled by the un-judicial manner of her alleged assailant. In my emotional and moral outrage I must write my d’rash. OK, after a good nights sleep I will tackle the portion.
Friday morning, I am once again glued to the TV, shocked that a vote is scheduled. I couldn’t help think about the perversion and lack of morality as the foundation for the critical events of Parshat Noah as I watched history in the making. Depressed and outraged by the ‘senior’ men holding our country in their hands, I watched Democrats, one by one, make a last ditch effort to influence the process. Then, in an astounding moment, a reprieve reminded we must never give up hope.
Yet a week later reality sets in. Those hell bent on ‘bending’ the courts to their own vision of the world vote and seal the countries fate, while 60% of us have all been overpowered and assaulted. Demoralized I reread the prelude to Parshat Noach, which sets the stage for G-d’s decision to destroy all people and something stood out, “The sons of rulers…took, for themselves, wives from whomever they chose.” Talk about expressions of power - taking whomever you want to be your wife? Of course one can say that Parshat B’reishit teaches that women were punished for defying G-d’s command not to eat the fruit of the Tree, “…he shall rule over you.” The Hebrew says, “V’hu Yimshal Bach.” My translation of bach is ‘in you,’ alecha is used in Kings 17:15, “to rule over you.”
This now takes on a very different meaning for me, especially as we’ve seen men express their power with women in relationships, in work settings, and in sexual assault. My translation teaches us that we often let men have power - they rule ‘within us.’ #Me Too is shifting the balance of power with women coming forward and expressing their rage, suffering, and humiliation of internalizing, ‘bach,’ the power of the other. Noach was righteous for his time, so must we be righteous for our time. “Where there are no worthy persons, strive to be a worthy person.” Pirkei Avot 2:6
G-d’s response to the aggression, violence, corruption, and perversion is to destroy everything yet expresses one of the most poignant statements in Torah, “V’yitatzeiv el-libo,” “G-d felt sadness and is grief-stricken in His heart.” For many of us, we too are grief-stricken in our hearts.
Why a flood when later in Torah G-d opened the earth to swallow the sinful. Water, which we depend on for sustenance, for nourishing all that needs to grow, for its transformative power of Mikveh and the ceremony of Tashlich, for its purifying and healing potential a well as its holy cleansing capacity, both in ancient times for the priest before entering the Holy space and our tradition of preparing the dead before burial is incredibly powerful. The flood cleanses the earth of its horrific violators.
We need a ‘flood,’ a ‘wave’ of transformation, purification, and healing of the horrific violence and abuse of power. Just as Noach represented new potential for humanity with the rainbow of light as a sign, so too we must bring light and healing into our world for the many who have suffered silently far too long, and for a society divided.
1. I surrender to now living a ‘new normal’ that is anything but normal!
2. I must surrender to the unknown and the unpredictable and be in the ‘now’.
3. I must relinquish all expectations, as nothing will ever be the same.
4. I must honor my new feelings – loss, sadness, fear, anger and guilt.
5. I must have compassion for the one I care for and their new road of difficulty, pain, trauma, dependency and loss.
6. I must have compassion for myself as I navigate the new demands and responsibility I undertake.
7. I must recognize the impact this new role can have – exhaustion, stress, anxiety, PTSD and grief.
8. I must take care of, not only my loved one, but also ‘myself’ – physically, emotionally and spiritually so I can sustain strength and resilience.
9. I must find appreciation and gratitude for moments of joy and pleasure, no matter how small.
10. I must discover my new bliss and create a life of meaning, productivity and life-fulfilling activity.
Rabbi Eva Robbins from
“Alchemy of Darkness, Transformation of Spirit” 2019
For the past fourteen years I have lived in another dimension, a place that often challenges my strength, my fortitude, and my faith. After 33 years of marriage, my husband's life shifted in a way that neither of us could ever have imagined. Still grieving the loss of my father, six months earlier, Steve faced an acute case of shingles that damaged his nerves so severely, fourteen years later he still shutters from pain. We faced, together, a 'new normal,' that was anything but normal.
Living with someone who is in constant pain, struggling with physical, emotional, and professional changes in their life, demands enormous emotional, physical and spiritual support. It calls for major adjustments in one's life. No less ever present is the depth of grief that one faces when loss, of so many different realities, walks through your door.
As loving partners, in life and in work, we shared everything. Now as care-receiver and care-giver, we shared something totally different. Being able to count on my partner and rabbi, in my role as cantor, began to dwindle. I faced the inevitable fork in the road - do I hire a rabbi to share my work or do I become one. I chose the more challenging, as often my way, which led me on my unforeseen journey of becoming a rabbi, an unexpected gift that helps to fill my soul's longings and fulfill my continued personal expansion.
My soon to be published memoir shares this fourteen year odyssey of lows and highs for two people destined to be together. 'Alchemy of Darkness, Transformation of Spirit,' teaches how we can find light in the dark and transform difficulty into opportunity.
I share what for me has become my Ten Commandments of Care-giving, as I shared recently in a workshop, "Survive and Thrive as a Caregiver" for the Kalsman Institute. I am happy to speak to anyone sailing on this rocky sea and available to speak and facilitate conversations for your institution or community.
I find myself these days responding to many stressors, personally and professionally, as the Days of Awe approach, feeling overwhelmed as I face the task of preparation. Personally I need to take a deep look at my failings, my destructive behaviors towards others, particularly those closest to me, and how I have occluded G-d’s presence in my life. It is time for my Cheshbon HaNefesh, an ‘accounting of the soul,’ that gives me a plan for making T’shuvah. Professionally I must gather the words, the voices, and the obligatory contract in order that N’vay (our oasis) emanate in our presence. All of this, ‘mitin drinin,’ Yiddish for ‘in the middle of,’ the chaotic and disturbing climate of our country provoked and enforced by our government.
Each of us has the awesome task of responding to the ‘spiritual alarm clock’ that rings its loud bell, trying to get our attention to ‘wake up’ from the sleepwalking that often occurs as the days proceed through the year. Our habits, our addictions, our monotonous routine, can easily numb us and prevent us from staying in touch with our soul and its expression. The soul, which is the true essence of our being, is so easily ignored or pushed aside as we face the daily grind, the obligations, the responsibilities, and the push and pulls of the world around us.
Yet how can we remain whole and directed when what surrounds us is the ugly reality of lies, disrespect, manipulation, disharmony, treason, and outright evil. We can barely move through the day without news feed, newspapers, television and radio blasting us with one assault after another. We rage inside at the attempts to turn our world upside down, creating international enemies, and expressing complete disregard for human beings and citizens of this country.
Whose heart didn’t break at the sounds of children crying for their mothers when torn out of their arms, who wasn’t shattered when we saw our President cow-tow to the President of Russia, and who isn’t totally sickened by one rich yet inept leader after another making horrific decisions. For the first time in my life, I am provoked by ‘politics,’ full of rage and poison at the absurdity, the passivity, and the arrogance of elected officials who put ‘winning’ over character. They’re not blind and either are we. It doesn’t take an Einstein to see the collusion and obstruction that has gone on. It is demoralizing and challenging to our sense of propriety, decency and hope for the future. We must ‘Make America Sane Again!’
We need to feel ‘sane’ again. Just as those who face trauma, difficulty, illness, and loss, we must find the inner strength to continue to do our best and complete the work of creation, as G-d challenges us to do. We must dig into the resources, particularly, our Jewish wisdom and spiritual practice, to strengthen our resolve and build resilience in the face of darkness. That is the power of light, that even in a completely blackened room, a tiny flame from a match or candle will show us the way and let us know we will be OK.
This is a country (probably a world) divided by opposing beliefs and perceptions. We must find a way to reach across the divide, heal, if only for the greater good, what separates us and bring compassion and understanding towards the other. We must all do our part, whether it is protesting, initiating, and or sharing our best qualities to make a difference—even a tiny one. I will speak to this during our time together.
Take a look at the picture to the left and see that when we write the name of G-d vertically it is reflected in the human body; we are truly created in the image of G-d, by virtue of this name. It is part of our very being. When we focus on this ‘spiritual skeleton,’ as I like to refer to it, we are strengthened in well-being and aware that we are never alone. Our national reality, schedules, and activities pull our attention away from knowing that our inner core, the 'marrow of our bones,' is filled with life-giving and life-enhancing nourishment. My husband and partner, Rabbi Steve and I, look forward, once again, to sharing our journeys through the elevating Days of Awe at the beautiful facility we rent, Temple Akiba, 5249 Sepulveda Blvd, Culver City. Shana Tova