Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Preparing for Shavuot

Natalie has a lot of shoes. This is by no means a disparaging statement. She’s no Imelda Marcos. Nevertheless, when Natalie and I discuss her legions of shoes lined up on the closet floor, I often suggest giving some away to make room for new ones. I have even suggested that if she gets rid of enough, I would buy her new ones myself. But for some reason she just cannot let go of a pair of shoes. At first I just didn’t get it. I threw my hands up in despair, not wanting to fight over shoes. But recently I realized that I do the same thing.

I have a lot of T-shirts. I wear at least one every day, usually two if I go to the gym. Yet I own way more than I need. As a youth worker, I acquire a lot of T-shirts at conventions and trips. People like to give me superhero T-shirts, which I love, and sometimes I will even go on line and buy a shirt that makes me laugh to read it, like “I’m with stupid” with an arrow pointing up.

Last week I had trouble shutting the T-shirt drawer after doing laundry, and I hadn’t even put them all away! So I dug around a little bit. I realized I never get to the T-shirts on the bottom of the drawer between laundry cycles. So I took them out. I made a little pile of T-shirts I haven’t worn in at least a year, and soon enough the drawer was only half-full. And I still have all I need and more. I have no plans to go out and buy more T-shirts, but at least now I have space, and Goodwill has “I’m with stupid.”

Tonight is Shavuot. The Torah tells us very little about what to do for Chag Shavuot, or the “Feast of Weeks.” We are commanded to count off seven weeks from Pesach, and to rejoice with an offering to God at the Temple. We know that the three chagim, the three sacred festivals, are all agricultural celebrations. Shavuot is when the first stalks of wheat ripen and can be brought to the Temple for an offering. We know everyone is supposed to celebrate, as we are told in Deuteronomy, “You shall rejoice…with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite in your communities, and the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your midst” (16:11). The whole community is a part of this sacred celebration.

That’s all we know!

Some time during the Tannaitic period, the time leading up to the 2nd Century CE, the Rabbis made the connection between the holiday Shavuot and the Biblical account of Moses ascending Mount Sinai. Exod. 19 says that the Israelites came to Sinai on the third new moon after the exodus, which is the month of Sivan. Then there is a period of getting ready. Moses goes up the mountain, talks to God, who tells him to remind the Israelites that they must obey God’s commandments. They agree, and Moses tells them not to even come close enough to touch the mountain, and to get ready to meet God in three days. These three days pass immediately, and boom! We are at Sinai amid peals of thunder, ready for Kabbalat haTorah, the accepting of Torah.

Tomorrow morning we will be here in the sanctuary, reenacting Kabbalat haTorah as a community as we take the Torah in our arms for our personal blessings. Tonight I want us to think about those three days that pass in as many words. Three days of purification and preparation for revelation that get absolutely no mention in the Torah as far as what happens during those three days. What were the Israelites doing those three days? Probably getting rid of their shoes and T-shirts.

Receiving Torah is a really big deal. In addition to preparing to receive the guide book for how to live as a people, they are preparing to meet God. The One who brought them out of Egypt is freed them from slavery is giving them the greatest gift in the world—the Torah. To do this they need to get rid of any preconceived notions they have. They cannot be thinking of God as an Egyptian deity or as a statue or stone. They must throw away these pre-monotheistic ideas and make room for God. Because just like in our closets and drawers, there is no way we can receive anything if we are full to capacity.

Just like the Israelites at Mount Sinai, we know there are great things ahead of us. We are building great things for our community, our families, and ourselves. If we do not properly prepare for what we receive, we just won’t have room for it. We need to get rid of the old to accept the new. Let go of our preconceived notions of what clothing and stuff we need, how much money we need, and how we should think and behave. Empty our drawers, our minds, and our hearts. Then we will truly be able to accept the very best that God has to offer us. We will have room in our lives for new things. We will have room in our minds for new ideas, and we will have space in our hearts for a renewed relationship with God.

As we prepare to accept Torah tomorrow morning, may we be blessed with space. May we maintain an openness that will allow us to accept the gifts that are available to us. May this Shavuot bring us closer to one another, to the Torah, and to God.

Chag Sameach.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The National Day of Prayer

Today is May 6, 2010.
As the first Thursday in May, it also happens to be the National Day of Prayer.
Following the lead of Presidents Adams, Lincoln, and others, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill into law that required every president to declare a day of his choosing as National Prayer Day. In 1982, President Reagan made that day the first Thursday in May for him and all subsequent presidents.
All morning while driving the boys to school and back I listened to what seemed like an endless stream of pro- and anti- National Day of Prayer commentary. Frankly, I can understand the opinions expressed on both sides. Our National Day of Prayer poses quite a conflict between my religious sensibilities and my liberal mindset.
As a rabbi it should be obvious that I pray. I pray all the time. During services that I lead or help lead, I find it completely necessary to seek out prayerful moments, such as during silent meditation or when the cantor is singing. I pray when I exercise, in the car, and when I change my kids’ diapers (“Please, God—let it not be messy!”) I pray out loud and to myself, in groups and alone, at mandated and random times. Sometimes I use liturgy, sometimes I make things up as I go. Because of the myriad of moments of prayerfulness that I seek out, I can appreciate the need for a National Day of Prayer. I find it comforting to know that when I lift my eyes and call out to what I call “God,” I am not the only one who believes. Maybe I am crazy to believe in a deity whose existence defies all logic, but I’m in a company of some 95% of the country whose beliefs are similar.
As a liberal, however, I am acutely aware of the perils of the other 5% and our requirement as a nation to stand up for them, too. No matter how many religions a generic day of prayer touches, even if every synagogue, church, and mosque were to log in 100% participation, we would leave out some of our country who feel uncomfortable with prayer. This is unacceptable to me. No matter how many times I defend my beliefs to my non-believing brother-in-law, I would not want to insult him by requiring he participate in prayer at the same level as we do. On the other hand, we do pressure him into joining us when we recite Hamotzi—grace before meals.
Still, there is a difference between family pressure and federal law.
Our constitution, in the very first amendment, states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” This is a slippery slope when arguing the establishment of a day of prayer. When I think about the 5% or more who either do not believe in God or are uncomfortable expressing said belief, the National Day of Prayer makes me cringe. Maybe it’s just the language. If we called it a day of meditation or reflection, it could hardly be construed as offensive to those who do not meditate or reflect. But the word “pray” raises the hackles of our brothers and sisters who choose not to partake in it. These same people are not bothered that it is currently Jewish History Month even though they are not Jewish, but for some reason prayer is bothersome.
Being a person of faith allows me to comfortably believe in God as I imagine God, and that faith gives me great comfort—no matter what other believe or do not believe. Therefore, I hesitate to support a law that asks people to pray. I do not want to participate in a government sponsored program that excludes some of our citizens.
The solution remains a mystery to me, and perhaps on May 5, 2011 I will have an answer.
For now, I will just have to pray on it.