Celebrating Shavuot Alone
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 17, 2002
One of the joys of living in Israel is that the public space at least is identifiably Jewish. Chagim are celebrated, after a fashion, by most of the Jewish population. Almost every Jew sits down to a Seder; a large percentage of families build sukkot; most families light Chanukah candles. On Yom Kippur, the country falls largely silent, and most Israeli Jews fast and spend some part of the day in synagogue. .
Shavuos is the one glaring exception to this general rule. The holiday has no unique customs that a non-observant Jew finds relevant or which provide him a sense of connection to being Jewish. Neither eating cheesecake nor staying up all night fit the bill.
Secular Israelis can attach universal (albeit distorted) messages to most holidays: Pesach as a celebration of human freedom; Chanukah as the battle for independence from outside oppressors; Yom Kippur as a day of introspection and stocktaking. Shavuos, however, has no such easy universal message.
Matan Torah, which we relive on Shavuos, is irrelevant to secular Israelis because the Torah itself is irrelevant to them. The chag is not even on the calendar of most secular Jews, precisely because they feel so little connection to the Torah. Their knowledge of the Written Torah is sketchy (albeit vastly superior to the average secular Jew outside of Israel), and their familiarity with the Oral Torah is likely to be non-existent. They do not see the Torah as the source of the values that guide their lives, and they are right about that.
The realization that we are celebrating Shavuos alone should focus us on the task of spreading knowledge of Torah. Somehow we have to let secular Jews know that we are eager to share with them our common heritage. It is one of the greatest tragedies of life in Israel that few secular Jews ever meet a religious Jew face-to-face over a Jewish text. A secular Jew’s impression of religious Jews is much more likely to be formed by what he sees of the Knesset budget deliberations on the nightly news.
Nor can we wait for our secular brothers and sisters to knock on our door. We have to go out to them. Lev L’Achim sends out close to 2,000 avreichim a week to knock on doors in non-religious neighborhoods. They offer to learn anything that the non-religious Jew might want. Two thousand avreichim is undoubtedly an impressive number; yet it is only a fraction of the total number of those engaged in full-time learning.
The time is propitious for an even more ambitious undertaking of this nature. The uncertainty and fear with which Jews in Eretz Yisrael find themselves confronting the future has opened up hearts. Avreichim who go door to door are finding that many more Jews are receptive to their offer to learn with them than were in the past. A survey conducted by the sponsors of the Tehillim campaign described in these pages a few weeks ago found that 300,000 Israelis continue to recite Tehillim on a regular basis as a consequence of that campaign.
The increased receptiveness to learning Torah is precisely what we would expect in the current situation when all the political choices on the table look equally unpalatable. The traditional Israeli attitude of kochi ve’ozem yadi is a thing of the past. Despite the impressive performance of the Israeli army in Operation Defensive Shield, few still believe that Israel’s military might alone is sufficient to impose solution. In short, we are ever closer to the situation described by the Chazon Ish as the precondition for Divine deliverance: a clear recognition that we lack the means to save ourselves.
Knocking on doors by itself will not be enough. We still have to answer the question why, for all the increased receptivity to religious messages, we have not yet witnessed a large-scale teshuva movement in Eretz Yisrael. In part the lack of mass teshuva is a function of our failure to adequately convey to secular Israelis that the Torah has something to say about every aspect of life and its relevance is not confined to the beis medrash.
That will not be easy message to get across. Certainly the media will not assist us in demonstrating the relevance of Torah to everything we do. Take the case of Rabbi Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism, for instance. For years, Rabbi Gafni has been one of the Knesset members most active on environmental issues. Yet he is never interviewed on the environment, but only on narrowly "chareidi issues," where the context is inevitably confrontational.
Yet unless we demonstrate that the Torah is a Torah of life – all of life – we will continue to find it hard to receive a hearing. Consider a hypothetical 35-year-old secular Jew, with a wife and three children. One day he awakens with a vague feeling that something is amiss with his life, or that the modern state of Israel cannot be the Jewish polity for which his ancestors prayed throughout the millennia of galus.
He is seized by the desire to make his life more Jewish, and feels the need for a connection to Hashem. Yet he has never opened up a Gemara, his wife does not yet share his feelings, and his bank balance is negative. He is not, in short, a candidate to take up the life of a kollel yungeman tomorrow or to send his children to chareidi schools in Bnei Brak or Jerusalem.
If we give him the impression that anything less is not being a serious Jew, then he is lost. The moment of hisorrerus will pass with nothing to show for it.
It is clearer than ever what we must do. We must go out to our brothers, and when we do, we must take with us the broadest possible Torah, a Torah that they will see as relevant to their own lives.
If we fail, we will find ourselves celebrating Shavuos alone again next year.
Related Topics: Shavuot
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list