Shavuot, one of the trio of Jewish pilgrimage festivals that also includes Pessah and Succot, tends to get short shrift from most American Jews. Coming mere weeks after the seders, perhaps the "first-fruits festival" simply finds many folks holidayed out. Or maybe it's because Shavuot lacks any unusual mitzva-food of its own like matza, or ritual practice like building a succa. Whatever the reason, though, Judaism's summer-season holiday has come to be neglected by much of the American Jewish community.
And yet, the argument could convincingly be made that no other Jewish festival is more timely or urgent for unity-challenged American Jewry.
Because Jewish tradition associates the day of Shavuot (two days, actually, at least for those of us who don't live in Israel) with the Jews' acceptance of the Torah, the seminal event of Jewish peoplehood and unity. Shavuot, the Talmud and Jewish liturgy teach, marks the anniversary of the day our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai, in the Talmud's poignant words, "like one person, with one heart."
What unified our people at that time, Jewish sources make clear, was our forebears' unanimous stance vis-a-vis the essential Jewish mandate, the laws of the Torah - a stance embodied in their immortal words: Na'aseh v'nishma, "We will do and we will hear."
That phrase captures the quintessential Jewish credo, the acceptance of God's will even amid a lack of "hearing," or understanding. "We will do Your will," they pledged in effect, "even if it is not our will, even if we are able to 'hear' it, even if it discomfits us."
Could anything be more antithetical to the American mindset? More diametric to the "What's in it for me?" mentality that we Americans, including we American Jews, take in with every breath?
Ours, after all, is a comfort-crazed society, fixated on having things, and on having them our way. And not only in the physical trappings of our lives but in our spiritual choices no less. How common it is these days to hear worshipers, Jewish ones as well, explaining their degree of observance, their choice of place of worship, even their religious affiliations, as born of something akin to coziness.
"I embrace this observance because it makes me feel good." "I so enjoy the services there." "That liturgy makes me feel involved, important." "I'm most comfortable (or happy, or content, or fulfilled) as a (fill in the blank) Jew."
But Judaism has never been about comfort, enjoyment or even personal fulfillment (though, to be sure, the latter surely emerges from a God-centered life). It has, rather, been about listening to God, not only when His commands sit well with us but even - indeed, especially - when they don't. Jews, after all, have died, proudly and painfully, for their faith.
Thus, Shavuot, which this year falls out on June 2 and 3 (its second day coinciding with the Sabbath), really deserves to be a front and center holiday for us American Jews. Its central theme speaks to us, loudly, clearly and directly. The Jewish summer-festival reminds us about the engine of true Jewish unity, that it lies in the realization that Judaism is not about what we'd like God to do for us, but rather about what we are honored, exalted and sanctified to do for Him.
The writer is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.