As we enter the month of April, the Jewish holiday cycle is moving us through the holiday of Passover which we will conclude with a service on the first Shabbat of the month (the 7th). For many, Passover is their favorite or most observed holiday (along with the Days of Awe). As many know, however, Passover is in partnership with another holiday, 50 days later (as the count up begins at the second night Seder): Shavuot, the festival of the “Giving of the Torah”.
Not only do these two holidays connect in acknowledgment that physical freedom, Passover’s focus, is not enough, in that freedom is vouchsafed by governance assuring such freedom, Shavuot’s focus. Of possibly greater significance is that each holiday connects us to the relationship of the two names by which we are identified as a people: Jew and Am Yisrael, the People of Israel.
Passover’s orientation is the miraculous survival of our people from hundreds of years of enslavement in Egypt. The Seder celebrates our having made it out of there safely and commemorates that transformation with our feast of freedom and gratitude for that amazing accomplishment.
None of that would have happened according to tradition had not a particular individual at the Sea of Reeds, where it appeared as if our escape would be doomed by the water blocking our passage to safety, stepped into the sea, up to his nostrils, before it opened, allowing our safe passage. Of all the leaders of the tribes that could have been that courageous individual to show the way, it was none other than Nachshon ben Aminadav, of the tribe of Judah that did so.
How amazing and appropriate that it was Nachshon that did so, in that the tribe of Judah would not only become our namesake throughout the ages, Jew, but in essence it would reflect the key to our continuity: the ability to survive reflected in gratitude for just that.
Throughout the ages we have been identified as Jews, those who are thankful for each day and each blessing in life. Regardless of pressures with which we live in a world fraught with danger and precariousness, we have never lost our “fall back” position of gratitude for life. The word Jew means “thankfulness” and it first emerges, metaphorically, with Nachshon risking his life to walk into the water, to show the way to survival. It becomes connected with our beginning as a people with the Passover Seder, reminding us to never forget the miraculousness of our survival and the freedom from oppression we celebrate during this holiday.
Yet, survival is not enough. We need purpose, meaning and infrastructure to allow our continuity to thrive and enable us to appreciate and understand why we survive. That is reflected in the 50 day count up to the holiday of Shavuot, as we are given the Torah, by which to live with purpose and with this understanding: God created us not just to be thankful, when so many conditions are conducive to doubting a secure future. God created us to be active and empowered partners to transform the world into a realm where life is once again secure and filled with blessings that abound. God gives us the mandate to reflect such partnership by creating a world that respects and includes different ways of living and honoring varieties of relationship between human beings and how they uniquely serve God.
Shavuot and the gift of Torah enable us to embrace our deeper identity as interactive and dynamic partners with God, i.e. “Israel”, “affective wrestling partners with God”. In embracing Torah as our guideline and infrastructure by which to live, we introduce the world to the commitment to each becoming secure enough in one’s own identity so as to be capable, open and inclined to listen to, learn from and engage one another in the bigger picture and purpose of bringing Shalom into the world.
Survival, necessary as it is, is not enough. We need the purpose associated with survival to use our God given gifts (Torah and all the attributes with which each person and people is blessed) to make this a Godly world; that means a home for all God’s creation and one that sees diversity as a blessing and not a threat.
Such teaching is increasingly important to observe and honor in a world whose survival seems increasingly threatened.
Metaphorically, if not for other more tangible reasons, it is good and wise for us as Jews to move beyond the survival theme of freedom from slavery, commemorated and celebrated by Passover and the Seders, to honor and focus on the lesser observed holiday of Shavuot, our gateway to the dynamics of partnership that will energize us to repair the world. We will celebrate this holiday in the third week of May including our visit to Diamond Creek Vineyard, joining our friends from Beth Sholom Napa for a day of rejoicing and celebration on Sunday, May 20.
I look forward to honoring our identities as Jews and as Israel as we move from Passover to Shavuot together and appreciate how ALL our holidays contribute to who we are as a unique and significant people, reminding ourselves and the world that the purpose of Life is to move beyond survival to dynamic partnership.