Celebrating Shavuot Alone
by Jonathan Rosenblum
May 16, 2002
Last night we completed the 49 days of counting the Omer between Pesach and Shavuot. Ideally each of those days is one of spiritual growth leading up to reliving on Shavuot of the giving of the Torah at Sinai. In that spirit, it would be appropriate to consider our situation today compared to that on Pesach.
In at least two respects, the situation of Jews both in Israel and abroad is far better than it was on Pesach. Throughout the month of March, Israel’s Jews suffered levels of terrorism that no nation can endure over an extended period of time. The threat of suicide bombers robbed us of our public space and private time. Downtown Jerusalem was a ghost town, and Israelis were foregoing in droves their typical leisure activities outside the home.
To the carnage of March – the equivalent in American terms of more than two World Trade Centers – the world responded with a yawn. As the sardonic Mark Steyn wrote in National Post of Canada, "All civilized people can agree that killing Jews is wrong. Well, killing six million of them 60 years ago is wrong. Killing a couple dozen every 48 hours, that’s a different matter."
No wonder a survey of Jewish high school students revealed that only 54% are sure that Israel will exist in 50 years.
All this culminated in the Seder night massacre in Netanya. Every Jew in Israel instinctively understood that suicide attack as "a taunt – a reminder [on the festival of freedom] that we are no longer free in our land," as Yossi Klein Halevi wrote in The New Republic.
Operation Defensive Shield was our collective response. The greatest achievement of the operation was immediate. Four thousand more Israeli men reported for duty than received call-up notices. The overwhelming majority of these reservists were husbands and fathers. Some had tasted combat before, but not, as one wrote home, "after looking deeply into our children’s eyes."
Through their willingness to sacrifice, they proved to the Palestinians and, no less important, to ourselves that we are not yet prepared to pick up and leave. Israel still has the will to fight, if that is what it takes to survive in this Land.
None of the other achievements of Operation Defensive Shield – the terrorists captured or killed, the bomb laboratories destroyed, the seizure of vast stores of weapons – would be as significant as the message conveyed by Israeli reservists.
THE second major development since Pesach is the way world Jewry rallied to Israel’s side. Israel’s war did not make things easy for Jews around the world, many of whom, especially in Europe, experienced overt anti-Semitism for the first time in their lives.
Kofi Annan’s question -- How can the whole world be wrong in demanding Israel’s immediate withdrawal? – was bound to make good liberals everywhere profoundly uncomfortable, especially when it was buttressed every day the New York Times, the Bible of American Jewish political correctness.
Still, when push came to shove, American Jews refused to believe that their brothers in Israel have suddenly been seized with a lust for the blood of Palestinian children. Though they are still not visiting en masse, they demonstrated in impressive numbers and have opened up their checkbooks to a degree not seen since the Yom Kippur War.
By choosing to support Israel against the whole world, world Jewry ensured its own future. For I have no doubt that all those who made the opposite choice are lost to the Jewish people forever.
THAT’s the good news since Pesach. Yet if Jews in Israel feel a bit more confident than they did seven weeks ago, they are hardly facing the future with bushy-tailed optimism. All the geo-political threats that existed then remain firmly in place today. Only the Palestinian confidence that victory is imminent has been dampened a bit.
No long-term solution to the terrorist threat has yet appeared – at least one that is palatable to most Israelis or capable of being implemented without exacting an unbearable political price. And new threats loom on the horizon: non-conventional weapons in the hands of Iraq and Iran, the increased incidence of terrorist activity by Israeli Arabs, to mention but two.
Tremendous resources of will are required if we are to prevail in the face of the challenges confronting us. We will have to tap into the same sources of power that kept Jews alive as a nation over two millennia removed from their Land – a miracle that knows no parallel in human history.
Only the attachment of Jews to their G-d and His Torah can explain that survival. Wherever that attachment has been absent, Jewish life ceased to flourish within generations.
Unfortunately, knowledge of and respect for the Torah is in short supply outside of the Orthodox community in Israel today. At no time of the year is that so clear as on Shavuot.
Most Jews in Israel experience, in one form or another, the Jewish calendar. Almost every Jew sits down to a Seder; many families build sukkot; most families light Chanukah candles. On Yom Kippur, the country falls largely silent, and most Jews fast and spend some part of the day in synagogue.
Besides the distinctive customs associated with the holidays, secular Israelis are able to attach universal (albeit distorted) messages to the holidays: Pesach as a celebration of freedom; Chanukah as a battle for independence from outside oppressors; Yom Kippur as a day of introspection and resolve to do better in the year to come.
The glaring exception to this pattern is Shavuot. No unique customs are associated with the day, and the holiday does not easily lend itself to universal messages. The Torah is God’s special gift to the Jewish people. Only to the extent that a Jew feels a connection to the Torah will he or she find cause to celebrate on Shavuot.
For that reason, Shavuot is not even on the calendar of most secular Jews in Israel. Their knowledge of the Written Torah is sketchy (though vastly superior to the average non-Orthodox Jew abroad), and their familiarity with the Oral Torah is likely to be non-existent.
There is enough blame to go around on both the religious and non-religious side for this sorry state of affairs. One of the great tragedies of life in Israel today is how few religious and non-religious Jews meet each other for the first time face-to-face over a Jewish text.
The time is ripe for such meetings. The traditional Israeli swagger and belief that military might can solve all our problems is a thing of the past. Hearts are open.
Such meetings require no prior assumption about the Divine nature of the text on the part of secular participants. All that is needed is that the text lives for one of the study partners, and that he or she is capable of showing how our ancestors derived guidance for every aspect of life from every word of these texts.
One thing is for sure. If the Orthodox are still celebrating Shavuot alone next year, we will all be in big trouble.
Related Topics: Shavuot
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