Shavuot in the desert: Reflections from Dubai - opinion

We left this Dubai community feeling such a sense of unity – re-enacting the Mount Sinai experience.

 The Museum of the Future in Dubai (photo credit: DUBAI FUTURE FOUNDATION/REUTERS)
The Museum of the Future in Dubai

On Shavuot, all around the world we celebrate the giving of the Torah. We often ask the question God gave the Torah in the midbar (the desert). God could have chosen to give the Torah anywhere, so why a dry, barren and lifeless desert milieu? Some classic explanations teach us that the desert symbolically reminds us to be humble and that the Torah is also known as mayim chaim (living waters). It can sustain us on a daily basis, especially when we are feeling lifeless and in despair.

Another way of looking at this question of why the desert is to focus on the root letters of the word midbar – daled, bet, resh – which spells out the word daber (speak). It hints to us the idea that it is often when we feel desert-like or direction-less that we find the words to speak. Whatever the explanation, it was in the desert where we originally received the Torah and it was approximately 3,334 years later in the desert of Dubai that we received the Torah again.

We were invited by the leader of the Jewish Community in Dubai, Ross Kriel, who leads the Minyan of the Palm (MOTP) to teach at their tikkun leil Shavuot (the all-night learning program customarily done on Shavuot). A midrash in Shir Hashirim Rabbah (the Anthology of Song of Songs) explains the origin of this custom. The Jewish people slept so deeply the night before the Torah was revealed that they had to be awakened by thunder and lightning. From this, we now have the custom of tikkun, which is meant to repair or to correct the original sleepy pre-revelation experience and transform it into a sleepless and exciting event by staying up all-night learning Torah.

Dubai is still a new destination for most of us; however, since 2008, Ross Kriel has been living and working in Dubai. Since that time, he has been building a Jewish community and developing relationships with Emiratis on the ground, which has helped to pave the way for the miraculous event of the Abraham Accords. There are currently four active kosher restaurants and a fifth one on its way, as well as several kosher active catering companies.

We expected very little with regard to the number of people who would attend the all-night Shavuot learning. Over the course of the 34 years as rabbi and rebbetzin of Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac, Maryland, we have traveled the world with teens and adults creating kindness and learning programs to help and strengthen Jewish communities. We were excited to do the same in Dubai.

 GLOBAL VILLAGE entrance in Dubai. (credit: BRIAN BLUM) GLOBAL VILLAGE entrance in Dubai. (credit: BRIAN BLUM)

AT THE tikkun leil Shavuot, we led classes on topics, such as “Angels vs. Humans, which One is Better,” “The Responsibility of Cheerleading Each Other: Learning from God’s Original Breath into Adam,” and “All Mitzvot are Created Equal or are They,” as well as topics related to the Ten Commandments. There were also members from the community who led classes on naaseh v’nishma (we will do and we will listen), the response of the Jewish people when receiving the Torah, as well as the famous idea of lo ba’shamayim hee (it is not in heaven) from the Babylon Talmud in Bava Metzia, which deals with a dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the Rabbis (that the Torah is for people and not in the heavens).

Shavuot in Dubai was magical and meaningful.

The prayer services were filled with spirit, joy, song and harmony. We listened to the most beautiful voices. We were most pleasantly surprised to see at least 40 people enter the room to learn Torah into the wee hours of the night. There were delicious kosher meals served throughout the entire Shabbat and Shavuot. We really enjoyed the piece de resistance, with the serving of a classic Shavuot cheesecake (we brought kilos of cream cheese to make it happen from Israel).

As we talk about peace and finding better ways to understand those who have different customs and rituals than us, it is the Jewish community of Dubai who we have much to learn from, as they actually live the paradigm of mutual respect and understanding with the Emirate community.

The Jewish community in Dubai is made up of expats from many different countries, including South Africa, Austria, England, Belgium, Israel, the United States and more. We left this Dubai community feeling such a sense of unity – re-enacting the Mount Sinai experience. As Rashi explains in the Book of Exodus, we stood at Mount Sinai ke’ish echad b’lev echad (as one people with one heart), a strong and united Jewish people sharing the same love and concern for one another.

Although the Minyan on the Palm synagogue meets in a five-star hotel in a beautiful space, it pales in comparison to the stars and the pure spirit that make up this Dubai Jewish community, who pray there.

Rabbi Joel Tessler is the rabbi emeritus of Beth Sholom Congregation, Potomac, Maryland. Rabbanit Aviva Tessler is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and the founder and executive director of Operation Embrace, an NGO assisting injured survivors of terror attacks in Israel. The Tesslers made aliyah five years ago and currently live in Caesarea.