Friday, May 22, 2015

Trivial Pursuit - Reflections on Shavuot 5775

I like coffee. It is one of the few bad habits I have left (he says with tongue firmly lodged in cheek).  So you won’t be surprised to learn that every week I teach a parsha class at a local coffee house. It’s a lot of fun actually; a bunch of us drink tea or coffee and talk about the weekly Torah portion and its relevance to everyday life and current events.

Talking Torah. At Starbucks. How convenient. [smile]

Anyway, one of the people that attends these classes is a real live farmer. With an actual farm. And barnyard animals. The real McCoy. This fact never ceases to fascinate me, because let’s face it: as a group, Jews are pretty…urban.

My farmer friend was telling me about how incredibly busy he is this time of year – getting all the seeds in the ground at just the right time, animals being born, etc. And as he was sharing all of this, I had a blinding flash of insight on a curiosity of the Jewish calendar that we will experience this weekend.

I refer to Shavuot, aka Pentecost, aka the Feast of Weeks, aka the Feast of the First Fruits. It is the day we received the Torah from Gcd at Mount Sinai. And it is the second of the three annual pilgrimage festivals (along with Pesach and Sukkot) when the entire Jewish People would ascend to Jerusalem and Gcd’s Holy Mountain to commune with the A-lmighty in the Holy Temple. (And will do so again very soon, probably in our lifetimes.)

But there is a difference: Passover is a seven day holiday; Sukkot is eight. On these pilgrimages, the entire Jewish People hung out and celebrated in Jerusalem for over a week.

However Shavuot, equal to the others in import and gravity, is only a one day event. A quick in-and-out to Jerusalem, as it were. Why should that be the case? Why isn’t Shavuot a week long affair like all the other pilgrimage festivals?

Here's the insight: we were once a nation of farmers, and Shavuot falls smack in the middle of the busiest time of the agricultural year. It is as if Gcd is saying to the Jewish People, “We need to meet because I have something extremely important to give you. But I also appreciate how busy you are, so we’ll make it quick.”

Think about that: Gcd is being considerate of us. (Isn't supposed to be the other way around?) Like a doting parent, Gcd cares about what is important to us, takes note of ostensibly trivial and random details in our lives. 

In Hebrew it's called Hashgachah Pratit, Gcd's involvement and concern with the trivialities of our individual lives, guiding us towards our own highest good. 

That Shavuot is a one day holiday is a testament to hashgachah pratit. The Torah is sensitive to our needs, and the mitzvot were designed for our ultimate good. And all year long, Gcd's Knowing Hand guides our affairs in ways that always ultimately accrue to our benefit, even if we can’t understand it in the moment. 

And so often, that guidance comes through the "random event."

How many times do we do things that we think are good but turn out bad? Or we experience bad things from which good things ironically emerge? 

Or sometimes people do things to us that really hurt at the time, but turn out to have been fortuitous in hindsight. Like getting fired from a job. 

Or the opposite: you win the lottery (sounds good) and it destroys your life (just read the studies on the effect of the lottery in peoples’ lives.)

Or we experience a chance meeting with someone on a plane or a hotel lobby that proves to be...providential. Or the things we thought were really important in the moment fade in relevance, while some seemingly unimportant and random fact of your life turns out to be huge?

On Shavuot, the Torah was given to the Jews on the most unassuming, unimportant and seemingly random of mountains, Mount Sinai. The most important event in human history occurred in a place no one would have thought to look, in a no-man's land.

People who grab the headlines and constantly call attention to themselves are less likely to be the conduits of Gcd's will. But keep your eye on the quiet ones, the humble ones, the people no one pays much attention to; for it is through them that Gcd manifests His Will in the world.

Lastly, I suggest that this is another reason why we read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. 

Ruth, the destitute outsider, is introduced to the Jewish People through a series of bad choices and unfortunate circumstances. The verse states that she "happened" to "randomly" choose Boaz's estate from which to glean barley. Thus it is through Ruth (this most unlikely of women) and under the most unlikely of circumstances that David (the most unlikely of Jesse's seven sons) becomes the Savior of Israel and the paragon of Jewish Leadership and Nobility for all generations. 

Gcd's Will is often done in places where we least expect it, in ways in which we least expect it. That is Hashgachah Pratit. That is the message of Ruth, and that is the message of the Torah to which we recommit this Shavuot. 

Your prayers will be answered, and everything will work out OK in the end...just probably not quite the way you expect it to.  "The stone the builders rejected as inferior will become my cornerstone." (Psalms 118:22)

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Same'ach.

1 comment:

  1. It is always a pleasure to hear from the book of Ruth each year. My impression of it (my librarian background) is that it reads much like a love story (woman's reading, a romance story.) There is such passion in the people and the lessons.