Friday, May 18, 2018

Shavuot: Our Origin Story

Superman is the last son of dead planet, raised by salt-of-the-earth parents who taught him to use his power to help others, in support of “truth, justice, and the American way.”

Wonder Woman lived her entire life on an island of peace and prosperity; learning of the injustice and imbalance in the larger world she commits herself to being an ambassador of peace and defender of the weak.

Spider-Man is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains the proportional strength and abilities of a spider; he chooses to be a super hero because of the lesson from his uncle that “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt and in fear for their lives, the children of Israel escape their bondage and travel to a mysterious desert mountain, where they are gifted with a moral code and a mission: to be a holy people.

On Shavuot we celebrate the revelation of the Torah, and our acceptance of our unique destiny. On Passover we reenact our liberation from slavery, but on Shavuot we understand what it means for us to be free and how it shapes us and guides our actions in thew world.

Comic book origin stories are familiar to many of us; they tell us not just what happened to these characters, but why they choose to be heroes. Michael Chabon, in his fictionalized history of comics, The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier & Clay, points out that what many of the superheroes do is very similar — they fight crime — but the important thing is not if they fly or have super strength. What makes superheroes interesting, the reason people read comic books and come back to these stores over and over, even knowing that the plot follows a pattern (the hero will defeat the villain and save the world), is that even superhero characters have depth. We are intrigued by the why: why do they do what they do?

Shavuot is tied to the giving of the Torah, connected to Pesach from the counting of the Omer. Our “why” is because we were slaves in Egypt. The first commandment is our “why”: “I am Adonai your God who led you out of Egypt to be your God.” Our sense of commandedness is far more than just the first ten commandments — it comes from our often complex relationship with the Divine.

Much has been said about the “Nones”— the growing number of people who, when asked about religion, reply “None” — and there is an argument that one does not need to be religious to be moral… which is true. There are lots of paths to ethical behavior, but what makes Judaism interesting, and relevant today, is our struggle with the “why.” Does it matter if I am donating to a food pantry out of a sense of fairness, or because I feel commanded to, or because this mitzvah fulfills my Jewish soul? Ultimately, if everyone contributes no matter what the reasons, the food pantry will be full, but if I am obligated to do this mitzvah, if I see myself as a partner with God, it will not matter if I feel like it, or if I’m feeling generous or fair or sympathetic — I will continue to do this mitzvah even when I am not in the mood, because Torah is my reason why.

Rabbi Larry Hoffman offers this translation for the first commandment: “I am the One who frees people from what enslaves them” — our origin story and our mission, our moment of realizing what we must do and how we should strive to act in the world. Yes, anyone can be ethical. Everyone can and should work to make this world a better place. On Shavuot, we affirm that it is our Judaism and our commitment to Torah that shapes us and we invite the depth and complexity and meaning it adds to our story.

[Co-written with my wife, Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik]

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