To this day, Sukkot is my favorite holiday. As a child, I delighted in what felt like an adventurous relocation of our holiday meals to the outdoor space. As an adult, the holiday’s themes emphasize values I understand as central to my religious life: the sukkah’s fragile nature invites us to cultivate a sense of empathy for those who live in a permanent state of vulnerability. Passover, too, has evolved for me, as the primary appeal of the holiday matured from staying up past my bedtime and eating fluffy marshmallows to the inspiring themes of liberation and freedom from oppression. But Shavuot has generally felt like an outlier. The holiday didn’t forge childhood memories as strong as the others; in my adult life, I’ve found it harder to integrate with other aspects of my spiritual life.
I’m not alone in my feelings about this holiday. Both shorter in length and less widely observed than some of the other festivals, Shavuot doesn’t seem to hold the same resonance for social justice activists, and isn’t often part of the Jewish social justice discourse.
Can we take a fresh look at Shavuot’s core themes and images to nourish the spiritual side of our activism?
In the rabbinic tradition, Shavuot is called z’man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah, and is considered to be the day of revelation at Mount Sinai. The Torah reading for this holiday is Exodus’ account of revelation: synesthetic pyrotechnics, a covenant established, and the divine proclamation of the Ten Commandments. It’s a dramatic moment in the biblical narrative that emphasizes the legal foundation on which the covenant between God and the Jewish people rests.
But there is another account of revelation that we don’t tend to connect with the holiday of Shavuot; as we consider the spiritual meaning that this holiday can hold for us, it’s worth looking at a passage from Vayikra 25 — Leviticus — that associates a set of laws other than the Ten Commandments with the revelation on Sinai:
And God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: when you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a shabbat for God. Six years you will sow your field and six years you will prune your vineyard, and gather her produce.
But the seventh year will be an ultimate Shabbat for the land, a Shabbat for God, you shall not sow your field nor prune your vineyard.
The rabbis of the Talmud were puzzled by this opening to Vayikra 25. What is Mount Sinai doing in these verses? According to the timeline of the narrative, revelation is chapters and chapters behind us. The text has taken us on a journey down the mountain, to the sin of the Golden Calf and its aftermath, through the construction of the Tabernacle and into the detailed laws of Levitical sacrificial offerings and ritual purity. And suddenly, here in Chapter 25, Sinai appears again, by way of introducing the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years.
Mount Sinai is not mentioned explicitly in conjunction with any other law, so the rabbis are confused by these verses. In the third-century collection of exegetical material called the Sifra they ask: Mah inyan shmitta etzel har Sinai? What does the matter of shmitta, the sabbatical year, have to do with Sinai?
Or put a little differently: if all the commandments were given on Sinai, what makes the laws of the sabbatical year so special that the Torah explicitly tells us that they were revealed in the holiest space of encounter between God and Moses?
To answer this question, let’s take a look at the animating values of the sabbatical year laws; in doing so, we can arrive at an understanding of shmitta that holds spiritual significance —even for those of us who are somewhat removed from this particular practice.
In addition to Vayikra 25, two other key passages — Shemot (Exodus) 23 and D’varim (Deuteronomy) 15 — talk about the laws of the sabbatical year. Shemot and D’varim refer to this time period as a year of shmitta; the word shmitta literally means release, and these three passages instruct us in the practice of release — the practice of letting go — during the last of a seven-year cycle. In this seventh year, indentured servants are to be freed, debts are to be canceled, we refrain from active farming, and all living beings share equally in what the land naturally produces.
Several things happen through this letting go: We release our claim on material goods. We level the playing field between rich and poor. We stop asserting our dominion over the environment. And as Vayikra 25:4 teaches, we dedicate this year as a shabbat shabbaton, Shabbat l’adonai — an ultimate Shabbat, a Shabbat to Adonai. Through this letting go, we come closer in our relationship with God.
These laws were meant to be practiced only one out of every seven years. But we find that observing these laws requires a complete transformation of how we understand our place in the world. The laws of shmita demand that we rethink our conceptions of ownership and entitlement, and that we attune ourselves to the suffering and to the wellbeing of all that lives — humans, animals and the land. The laws of shmita ask us to open to an awareness that the entirety of creation is part of something that extends far beyond our tiny human existence.
To observe the laws of the seventh year, we must spend the other six years of the cycle actively cultivating this orientation to the world. To observe the letting go that shmita demands of us, we must in fact learn how to let go in the other six years, as well. And this is the ultimate lesson of shmita, even for those of us who don’t farm land, hold debts, or have indentured servants working for us: to let go.
It is hard to let go. It is hard to let go of what we believe is ours. What we believe we are entitled to. What we believe we need to survive. It is hard to let go when the culture of the world we live in tells us to hold on, to cling more tightly to our possessions, to wrap up our sense of self worth with how much we produce, earn, have.
It’s hard for me to let go when, for example, I check the balance on my retirement fund, start worrying about my future. When I get so caught up in my work, my projects, my needs that to make space for another 0- for the tears of friend, the outstretched hand of someone in need, the hunger pangs of a child across the globe — feels like a burden that I just want to ignore. It is hard to let go of our sense of self-importance, yet shmita asks us to do this very hard thing, this very letting go. It calls upon us to embrace and embody the worldview that Abraham Joshua Heschel described when writing about the role of prayer in the religious life, a worldview in which “the self is not the hub but the spoke of the revolving wheel.”
There is content to our covenant. There are laws and precepts, rituals and rites. But there is culture to our covenant, as well. By linking the laws of the sabbatical and jubilee years so closely with the image of revelation at Sinai, the Torah suggests to us what the culture of that covenant should be: A culture of humility, of interconnectedness, of mutual responsibility. A culture not of the self but of the greater good.
The spiritual significance of Shavuot is in its reminder of the culture we should embrace as we live out our covenant. The laws of shmita represent the ultimate goal of this covenant established at Sinai, the ultimate — if aspirational — vision of what it means to take Torah down from the mountain and out into the world.
Shuli Passow is a Jewish educator and communal professional who most recently served as the director of community initiatives at Jewish Funds for Justice, where she worked with synagogues across the country to support their involvement in congregation-based community organizing. She has taught widely in youth and adult education settings, and is particularly passionate about exploring issues of justice, compassion, environmentalism and economics through Jewish text. Shuli is currently pursuing rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and serves as a rabbinic fellow at the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at New York University.
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