Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Living the Words of Torah

For Jewish parents of school-age children, this time of year is always especially stressful. It seems that just as we breathe a sigh of relief at the conclusion of Passover, we fall into preparations for the end of the school year (and someone’s graduation), the approach of the summer (and all the preparations for camp or summer programs), a vacation or travel (if we are lucky) and preparations for the upcoming school year (whether it entails a child transferring to a new school or new stage of their education).

In the midst of all of this extreme activity, Shavuot happens.

In North America, Shavuot feels different every year, depending on when it falls in the secular calendar. Sometimes it happens when summer is underway, lending it a light-hearted character. This year, it comes so early in June that it seems an extension of Memorial Day.

From the vantage of Shavuot, Passover seems far away, a land with a limited menu we once visited. Indeed, at the approach of Shavuot, we are reminded of the seven weeks that have passed and of the flight of time. For those of us who count the Omer, Shavuot is a destination we approach day-by-day. It is a spiritual – not only spatial and temporal – journey we undertake as a community.

Shavuot is a real insider-Jewish holiday and reference point. Ask the average person to name three Jewish holidays and chances are that Shavuot will not make the list.

Neither is Shavuot’s meaning known widely among the general population. If anything, what people tend to know about the holiday known as Z’man Matan Torateinu is more likely related to cheesecake and blintzes and the custom of staying up all night learning Torah.

This year, as I considered the texts I wished to study on Shavuot, I found myself thinking of the living Torah aspect of this holiday – one of the three pilgrimage festivals – and pondering how best to sanctify the festival whose name translates as the Time of the Giving of the Torah.

The answer was revealed to me, most happily, in the course of a program organized two weeks ago by United Synagogue.

You see, two weeks ago, together with a robust group of United Synagogue staffers, I left the confines of our Manhattan office for our very first Day of Service. This effort was coordinated with our offices in 13 states and one province from New York to California. Together, we were nearly 90 people strong. Together, we served meals to homeless men and women; we helped low-income people gain access to government food programs; we played bingo, sang songs, and kibitzed with seniors at a home for the aged. Together, we came away touched by the people we met, struck by the level of need in our communities, and awed by the impact of the agencies we served. Together, we brought smiles to those who were sad, company to the lonely. We renewed our relationships; we found new meaning to the building of community. By giving to others, the Torah was given again and again as it was on Sinai.

Recognized as Jewish professionals and volunteers, our presence was a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s Name. We lived the words we study and pray. We were, quite, literally, busy with the words of the Torah, praying with our hands, feet and smiling faces. We were fulfilling the liturgical mandate: “la’asok b’divrei Torah.”

When we returned to the office, I shared several Jewish texts with our Manhattan staff that convey how deeply our sages believed that we are responsible for the welfare of our fellow human beings. I reminded my colleagues of the words from Pirkei Avot: “It is not up to you to complete the task; neither are you allowed to desist from it.”

I hope you will visit the United Synagogue Facebook page for pictures and more information about our recent Day of Service. And I hope that you will take with you…into this Shavuot and beyond…the ethic of living the words of Torah. It is what builds community. It is what makes the world whole. This is a wonderful, beautiful season, the beginning of summer in North America. The message of Shavuot makes everything bloom, helps those of us who feel overwhelmed by all our responsibilities as parents in this season of extreme busyness.

Anytime we can become embodiments of gemilut chasadim – acts of loving kindness – we pay tribute to  Z’man Matan Torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah.

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