By Rabbi Adam J. Rosenbaum
One of my favorite musical artists is Peter Himmelman. His song “What We Set Out To Be” is a narrative of a man who suddenly realizes that he has not lived his life according to the way he once dreamed of as a young man. The lyrics of the chorus are: “What we set out to be/Swear I don’t remember a word we said/What we set out to be/Those big ideas went like whiskey straight to our heads/You and me/How far are we/From what we set out to be?”
The frustration embedded in this chorus resonates with anyone who looks back with amazement at the person he or she once was. Sometimes we may laugh about what once seemed important to us, about the frivolous activities and things we once pursued that mean little to us now. Other times, we may look back with despair, wondering why we had to change, why we had to compromise, why we forgot where we came from. Our challenge is to determine how we might transcend those feelings of loss so that we can feel proud, even though we are not necessarily the person we once set out to be.
The way that the holiday of Shavuot, which we begin this evening, has changed over the years is a perfect example of how modem Judaism is sometimes a complete replication — and other times a distant echo — of what Torah Judaism set out to be. Shavuot originated as one of the three pilgrimage festivals, one of three times that Jews travelled to Jerusalem during the Temple to offer sacrifices. Like the other pilgrimage festivals, Shavuot is tied to the annual agricultural cycle. It is known in the book of Exodus as Hag HaKatzir, the Feast of the Harvest, since the holiday falls during the wheat harvest, when two loaves of bread were baked and brought to the Temple as an offering. Shavuot also is known in the Torah as Hag HaBikurim, the Festival of the First Fruits, because after the first fruits of the wheat harvests were offered at the Temple, the remainder of the harvest was permissible to use.
But by the time the rabbis of the Talmud commented on Shavuot, they noted that the holiday needed an identity makeover. After all, it was easy for Jews to identify with Pesach and Sukkot, holidays rich in both religious symbols and unique ritual. But Shavuot had neither of these attributes. So, the rabbis discovered, by using some deft arithmetic, that Shavuot’s Hebrew date, the 6th of Sivan, was the same day of the revelation on Mount Sinai. Therefore, the rabbis declared that Shavuot would henceforth be the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah.
In one sense, you could argue that by reemphasizing the meaning of the holiday the rabbis “saved” Shavuot from irrelevance, since the agricultural aspects of this festival don’t resonate with the many Jews who don’t live agrarian lifestyles. Others may counter that the rabbis had a lot of chutzpah to redefine the holiday. But when considering Shavuot’s evolution, it’s appropriate to keep in mind the quote by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, who said, “the old shall become new, and the new shall become holy.” In other words, we don’t have to fear that a holy day’s new identity will rob it of relevance or meaning.
Perhaps Shavuot isn’t what the earliest Jewish teachers set it out to be. But by allowing the holiday to evolve, we are reminded that it is healthy, even advisable, to redefine the things we care about — and even ourselves — as we grow and change.
-Adam J. Rosenbaum will continue to be rabbi of Temple Beth Tzedek and a LiNK educator until one month from now, when he will subject himself once again to life-altering humidity.