Shavuot, a festival whose name is rarely translated into English, is intriguing in its obscurity. Its name relates not to the reason for the festival, but rather to the seven weeks of counting which begins on the second day of Passover. While Passover may attract the masses and Sukkot is celebrated with pomp and ceremony, the festival of Shavuot has far greater significance in Judaism. The former two holidays commemorate the exodus from Egypt while Shavuot commemorates the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah. The broadness of its scope proves to be its greatest challenge and perhaps explains the lackadaisical attitude many Jews have in celebrating Shavuot. For most people, a single concept or obligation is far easier to comprehend than the vastness of the revelation and the acceptance of all 613 commandments.
Have you ever asked yourself whether you believe in God, monotheism and all of Judaism? I know the question may sound flippant to some and perhaps slightly arrogant to others, yet as we begin preparations for this week’s festival of Shavuot the question needs to be asked. In recalling the events that transpired 3500 years ago, we are asked to take a leap of faith and to believe in matters that have no historical accuracy. We are expected to accept the Torah and believe that it was God himself who gave it. We are to believe that it was transmitted to Moshe over forty days and nights and during this heavenly visit he neither ate nor drank. Maimonides qualifies his articles of faith by maintaining that the authenticity of the Torah is beyond reproach. He further states that every letter we have today is exactly the same as was transmitted by God and no discrepancies have ever occurred. (Of course the fact that Yemenite Torahs have nine differences with our Ashkenazi Torah is an issue that was either ignored or not known 900 years ago.)
The other morning in Starbucks I was having a conversation about Judaism’s position on parallel universes. I mentioned that the Midrash posits that Bereishit, the first word in Torah, may actually be a combination of two words indicating Gods creation of six parallel worlds. I continued by explaining that opinions differ and some ancient rabbis believed there were 192 parallel worlds, and that number continues to spiral. One of my scholarly friends offered that belief in creation should be obvious to anyone that looks into the universe. Merely looking through a telescope into the vastness of space and considering the mathematical improbability of creation’s randomness is sufficient proof of a divine creator.
I was fascinated by the simplicity of his observation. However, I also realize that a huge leap of faith is required to go from belief in a creator to belief in the fundamental tenets of Judaism. Perhaps that is why the torah states: I am the lord your God who took you out of Egypt instead of I am the lord your God who created the world. It is less demanding to believe in creation because it has little impact on our day to day existence. Belief in creation doesn’t limit my activities and I can still eat whatever my heart desires. I can marry whomever I want and my morals can be comfortably in sync with those of the society in which I live. However, His intervention in Egypt came with a price tag of commitment. He placed over us a moral code of ethics and numerous regulations. In other words, our freedom was predicated on our eternal subservience to His doctrine. (This concept may be easier to comprehend using slavery as a frame of reference. The emancipation of slaves granted them freedom from their masters but in exchange they became subject to the rules and regulations of the United States of America).
Yet it is far easier for the words “I believe” to escape from your lips than it is for the words to truly emanate from your heart. The Chafetz Chaim wrote, “To those that believe, no proof is needed. To those who don’t believe no proof will be sufficient.” I humbly disagree with his sentiments as I can’t imagine anyone living today that has never experienced doubts. Although they may fear publicly articulating these sentiments for fear of embarrassment or communal retribution, doubts are nonetheless an integral component of free will. If a commitment to belief were so simple to attain, then why is it portrayed as number one of the big ten?
However, there may be another reason why the commandment to believe in God focuses on the Exodus of Egypt. It suggests that our faith is not dependent on specific details. It is sufficient to believe in the big picture without getting bogged down in nuance. We can still be a good Jew without necessarily accepting each and every word literally. Did Jonah really live in the belly of the whale for three days? That belief may be interesting (to discuss on a couch) but a reasonable person is not required to dispense with rational thought in order to believe. Even the Vilna Gaon thought it was too farfetched to be factual and understood the story of Jonah as a metaphor. Can you believe that Ezekiel stood over a valley of dry bones and prophesied that they would awaken and indeed that’s what happened? I can’t tell you what really happened, but even the Talmudic discussion posits that his prophecy was also a metaphor. Was Rebekah really three years old when she married? Were four fifths of the Israelites killed during the plague of darkness? The first commandment may suggest that some of these fantastical details are not fundamental to our belief system and need not be understood literally.
Shavuot need not be as mentally taxing as we imagine. To be an observant Jew one must take a leap of faith. But as I grow older I notice that my mental state more closely mirrors my physical state. Although I try, I just can’t leap very far. And truthfully, I am quite content lifting both feet off the ground simultaneously. Maybe a little less cheese cake would help, but that’s one mitzvah I’m very strict in observing.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,