Shavuot is a time of renewal. During the era of the Temple, this period marked the time when the community would offer two loaves of wheat to signify the ripening of the wheat throughout the land, and the individual would bring his own first fruit to the Temple. On a historical and religious level, Shavuot commemorates the Giving of the Torah, when we became a holy People, chosen by God to live an elevated life, committed to and shaped by the Torah and the mitzvot.
This year on Shavuot, as a light at the end of the tunnel is appearing in this pandemic, we find new beginnings all around us. What are we to do with this opportunity for a clean slate? One key answer is: Don’t take it for granted. Note it, reflect on it, own it, and actualize its potential.
On Shavuot, when we would appear before the Kohen and offer our first fruit to God, we would recite a brief passage, one that serves as the base text for the Passover Haggadah. This passage starts with an appreciation of how we got to where we are. Our flourishing in the Land of Israel was not always the way things were: it was only because, many centuries ago, God saved us from slavery and brought us to the land. But it does not end with appreciation and gratitude. The next passages show us that once we recognize that everything we have is from God, it becomes our responsibility to share what we have with others.
How can we apply this wisdom as we tentatively re-enter a world that many of us left during the outbreak of the COVID pandemic? Which lessons will we take into this new reality from these times of isolation, fear, and loss? Will we have more appreciation for our own frailty, for our indebtedness to our health care providers, to our need for social contact and community? Will we have a deeper realization of societal inequities in health care and living conditions? And if we take time to reflect on the past, will we allow it to shape the present and guide how we live our lives going forward?
There is scarcely a better time to ask these questions than Shavuot, as we reflect on the Giving of the Torah, a moment that formed all of us into a people consecrated to God. At the Giving of the Torah, we were given a Divine mandate: “You shall become to me a… holy people.” The verb is future-oriented – we must work to become holy; we are not innately so. Taking on this challenge means more than committing oneself to a life of mitzvah-observance. It means owning this mandate personally and bringing the fullness of one’s individual personality to its translation and actualization. We now will be entering a world that is more malleable than the one we left just one year ago. Will we seize the opportunities that are now being presented to us? Will we answer the call to become a holy nation, to make the world a more Divine, more moral place?
Throughout this pandemic, our YCT rabbis in the field have never stopped sanctifying the world by finding creative and innovative ways to serve their communities despite the challenges. Now as we turn to a post-vaccine world, these rabbis will be uniquely positioned to reflect on the past and look toward the future for expanding the definition of what it means to serve. As we once again engage with our religious and social networks, we can find inspiration from the YCT rabbis who have served at the front lines of this pandemic all along.
Like our YCT rabbis have done throughout the pandemic, we now must re-engage with the goal of sanctifying the world with our presence. As we enter Shavuot, let us take time to reflect on the challenges and opportunities of a new world. And, when faced with the task of sanctifying the world with our presence, let us all strive to answer: “We will do and we will listen!”
Rabbi Dov Linzer