Shul on Shavuot

What Should Shavuot Mean to Me?

Yesterday, I attended a class called “The Laws of Shavuot.” Being relatively new to Judaism, I expected a class similar to those before Passover or Sukkot. Many technical laws. Lots of “do”s and “do not”s.

To my surprise, other than going to synagogue to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments, there are very few laws unique to Shavuot. Unlike Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, there are no lengthy prayers. And unlike Sukkot and Passover, we can eat whatever we like, as well as wherever we like. Sure there are the customs related to flowers, blintzes, and cheesecakes, but hey, it’s a piece of (cheese)cake compared to the other holidays.

Am I missing something here? Shouldn’t the holiday on which we received the many laws of the Torah have some laws of its own?

-from “Why is Shavuot So Easy?”

I suppose I should write something about Shavuot. The festival begins at sundown this Tuesday, June 3rd and continues through sundown on Thursday, June 5th. It’s the only one of the Jewish moadim (appointed times) that has a direct corollary in the Christian religious calendar since the Church observes the Pentecost event (Acts 2:1-13), however, while Christians consider Pentecost a one time occurrence, Shavuot, from a Jewish perspective, is an annually recurring celebration.

As the person writing to the Chabad “Ask the Rabbi” column observes, unlike the other Jewish festivals, Shavuot doesn’t seem to have much in the way of customs or commandments associated with it. Of course, neither does the typical observance of Pentecost in churches. In fact, growing up in a Lutheran church, I didn’t even know Pentecost was an event. I only thought we celebrated Christmas and Easter. The same was true when I actually (finally) came to faith (as a child, I never understood I was supposed to do something like “accept Christ into my heart,” so I couldn’t be considered a Christian in those days) in a Nazarene church when in my early forties.

I guess I should correct a point I made above. Shavuot celebrates a one time event also, the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Yet, the Bible commands the Jewish people to observe the moadim in perpetuity, while Church custom added the “observance” of the giving of the Holy Spirit outside of the Biblical canon.

For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus so that he would not have to spend time in Asia; for he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.

Acts 20:16 (NASB)

In the church I attend, both in the sermons on this verse and in Sunday school class, it is imagined that Paul’s primary motivation to get to Jerusalem in a hurry has to do with the significance of the Pentecost event, the giving of the Holy Spirit, which the Pastor refers to as “the birthday of the Church”. And while Pastor does acknowledge that Paul, as an observant Jew (though he believes that in this “transitional period”, Torah observance was on its way to extinction among the Jewish ekklesia), would also be motivated to return to Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot in accordance to the commandment, my Sunday school teacher is all but blind to the “Jewishness” of Paul and focuses exclusively on Pentecost as the apostle’s overriding concern.

More’s the pity. The Church wholly misunderstands Paul and has led the rest of the world, including ancient and modern Judaism, to misunderstand him, too. We also tend to miss why Shavuot would have been so special to Paul as a Jew and especially as the apostle to the Gentiles in the diaspora.

Torah is the life blood of the Jewish people. Our enemies have always known that when we Jews stop learning Torah, our assimilation is inevitable. Without knowledge there is no commitment. One cannot love what he does not know. A person cannot do or understand what he has never learned.

-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”

Magnus Zetterholm
Magnus Zetterholm

As I’ve mentioned in one or two commentaries on Magnus Zetterholm’s book The Formation of Christianity in Antioch: A Social-Scientific Approach to the Separation between Judaism and Christianity, there were always Jews in the first-century diaspora who were at risk of abandoning Judaism and being assimilated into pagan Greek culture. Paul must have seen evidence of this in Antioch and other cities in the galut and I can only imagine how it pained him.

He, of all people, should have known the vital importance of Torah study and observance for Jews, Jesus-believers or otherwise, in order to maintain Jewish identity and covenant integrity. After all, he declared himself…

…a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city, educated under Gamaliel, strictly according to the law of our fathers, being zealous for God…

Acts 22:3 (NASB)

Also, on many occasions after his initial arrest, he proclaimed his innocence, including in Rome:

Paul called together those who were the leading men of the Jews, and when they came together, he began saying to them, “Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered as a prisoner from Jerusalem into the hands of the Romans.”

Acts 28:17 (NASB)

The Torah was always close to Paul and in spite of how the Church has distorted Paul’s teachings and his reputation and taught the Jewish people to distrust if not actively despise Paul, the meaning of Shavuot must have been heavily upon him during his last visit to Jerusalem.

What is it supposed to mean to Jews today? What is Rabbi Yisroel Cotlar’s answer to the question of why Shavuot is so “easy”?

Here’s what R. Cotlar says the answer isn’t:

The Torah is often seen as a “bandage” solution. The world is essentially a dark and scary jungle filled with all sorts of unhealthy foods, relationships and forms of recreation. So the Torah keeps us out of trouble.

Essentially, this perspective is saying that there was always a world, stuff, and us. The Torah? That came later on. It wasn’t until 2,448 years after creation that G‑d decided to work on the glitches, or at least provide us a way to maneuver around them.

With this approach, the Torah is an imposed set of laws—one that clashes with the world around us.

Now here’s the correct response:

The Torah is G‑d’s own wisdom. It existed long before there was a world. But G‑d wasn’t happy with this wisdom staying in the spiritual realms. He wanted a physical world where this wisdom would be studied and its commandments observed. To make things challenging, He planted obstacles and distractions, but these are merely masks that conceal the world’s true purpose: An activity center for Torah and mitzvahs, a place where every word can be transformed into Torah, every gadget used for holiness, every dollar turned into a mitzvah.

And because this was the intent from the very beginning, it’s Torah—not the craziness on the outside—that is the world’s true genetic makeup. We need the Torah merely to reveal what the world always was meant to be: a home for G‑d.

ShavuotThe celebration of the giving of the Torah seems so “ordinary” because the Torah represents what is supposed to be “normal life” for the Jewish people, it’s a reflection of what God’s intent for Creation was always supposed to be. R. Cotlar even calls the Torah the “very DNA of the world.”

He concludes:

Each year on Shavuot, when we re-experience Sinai, we show our appreciation for Torah through normal eating and celebrating—without any special rules. For the Torah does not introduce a new reality, but rather sheds light, purpose and sanctity into everything that is already here now. Even cheesecake.

What should Shavuot or “Pentecost” if you will, mean to Christians today? In most churches, not much. Even those churches that observe some sort of Pentecost celebration rarely, if ever, even give lip service to Shavuot. Until I started studying within a Hebrew Roots context, I had no idea what so many “out-of-town” Jews were doing in Jerusalem when the Pentecost event happened. I had no idea that Jews from all over the civilized world would be flooding into Jerusalem to observe Shavuot and to offer sacrifices at the Temple.

Although I won’t have the opportunity this time around, for the previous two years, I’ve seen first hand what Shavuot should mean to Jews and Gentiles celebrating together in response to the ancient mitzvot and through the revelation of Messiah. This year, First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) is holding it’s annual National Shavuot Conference at Beth Immanuel Sabbath Fellowship in Hudson, Wisconsin from May 30th through June 5th. Messianic Jews and Gentiles from all over the U.S. and some from other nations, are currently gathering together for a time of worship, fellowship, and celebration in Messiah, perhaps not entirely unlike that early Jesus-believing “Synagogue of the Way” in ancient Syrian Antioch.

A Jew is commanded to learn Torah day and night and to teach it to his children. If a Jew wants his family to be Jewish and his children to marry other Jews, then he must integrate a Torah study program into his life and implement the teachings into his home and his being. One can tell his children anything, but only if they see their parents learning and doing mitzvot, will they inherit the love for being Jewish.

-R. Packouz

But if this is what the Torah, and by extension Shavuot, means to the Jews, what does it mean to those of us from “all the nations (who) will grasp the garment of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you” (Zechariah 8:23)? Do the Jews celebrate the giving of Torah while the Gentiles celebrate the giving of the Spirit?

We can see the application of celebrating the Spirit to both the Messianic Jews and the believing Gentiles, but what about the Torah?

conference2Last year at the Shavuot conference, during the Shabbat and Shavuot Torah services, I was reluctant to participate because of this very question. I had embraced Boaz Michael’s vision of the Tent of David and was attempting to integrate into “church life.” Would I damage that effort by not only participating in but thoroughly enjoying celebrating Shavuot within a wholly Jewish context?

I’m afraid my identity and affiliation confusion made me seem “inhibited” and I lost the sense of closeness I felt toward people the year before. I only started to “get into it” at the very end but by then it was too late. And when returning home, almost before the plane landed back in Boise, I thought I shouldn’t go back the following year. I felt like I embarrassed myself in front of many of the people I respect, people who I consider friends but who now seem distant.

In the past year, I find I don’t really fit in at church though I’ve tried to remain devoted to my mission. I seem to be making a mess of all of my relationships on both sides of the aisle. I’ve been reconsidering my purpose in church, but I’m rapidly running out of options and ideas except maybe continuing to attend while keeping my head down and my mouth shut.

My wife surprised me a few weeks ago. Actually, it was on the day she called me arrogant for thinking I had a purpose to change anyone or anything in any Christian church. She asked me why I wasn’t going to this year’s Shavuot conference.

I was more than surprised by her asking. I didn’t even realize she was aware that another conference was coming up. I told her the truth. First off, we always have a “discussion” about the financial cost of my attending, even though I’ve received generous support in the past. I also mentioned (again) the relative level of embarrassment I cause her in the local Jewish community, not only as a church-going Christian, but as a “Messianic” and one who periodically associates with “Messianic Jews.”

But she’s worried about my “fellowship,” which she brings up from time to time (again, to my surprise), and she said that for those people in the Jewish community who she’s closest to, my being a Christian probably doesn’t make a difference one way or the other. It’s not as if I interact with any of her Jewish friends, or at least I haven’t for many years.

Shavuot is a time of community. I suppose you could say that of any of the moadim, but on Shavuot, God forged the nation of Israel at Sinai, He created a Covenant relationship with Israel and delivered, through Moses, the conditions of that relationship, the Torah, which gives joy and is a tree of life to all those who cling to her. We grafted in Gentiles, by clinging to the garments of the Jewish people through faith, apprehend salvation and some of the covenant blessings. Through faith in Messiah who leads us to the Father, we can sit at the same table as the Jews in Messiah as equal co-participants, and be blessed as well as be a blessing as the crowning jewels of the nations.

Up to JerusalemThis Sunday (today, as you read this), I expect to be in Church listening to a sermon on Acts 21 and 22 and discussing Paul’s initial defense against the charges leveled against him by some Jewish agitators, largely due to his close association with Gentiles, both in the diaspora and in Jerusalem.

Yet Paul fought tremendous opposition to his return to Jerusalem, and many of his closest friends and advisors thought it was a mistake for him to enter the Holy City. Nevertheless, he went, for he was traveling not of his own accord but in response to God’s will. He knew it would be the last time he would see Jerusalem and that he was quite likely to die. His dedication to the Torah, to the Temple, and to the Jewish people was brought into question and many believed him to be a traitor, but he was responding to a higher purpose, not higher than Temple and Torah, but higher than criticism, insult, and even threats of death.

What should Shavuot mean? It should mean choosing (or being chosen, if speaking of the Jewish people) a way of life that isn’t comfortable and for some, isn’t even safe. It’s recognizing that God comes bearing gifts, but those gifts aren’t always easy to carry. Actually, the yoke of the Master is light, but in my case, I find the burden of my human character flaws to be an unwieldy weight that I stagger under and yet cannot release.

Shavuot means accepting what God gives in obedience and realizing your life isn’t your own anymore. It never was of course, but the illusion of “self-ownership” is swept away. Shavuot may be a time of fellowship, but can also bring near the realization that your “ekklesia” may be nowhere nearby, and in the stillness and quiet, you, or rather I, turn to the One who has taken my life and the One to whom I willingly surrender it.

As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.”

John 6:66-68 (NASB)

Shavuot is a reminder to accept whatever comes from the hand of God, whether bitter or sweet.

8 thoughts on “What Should Shavuot Mean to Me?”

  1. Obviously, you’ve never been in a “Pentecostal” Church on Pentecost. They definitely celebrate it although not like the Jewish Celebration.

    As an introvert, and a nerd, I am very familiar with feeling as though I don’t fit in. These days I just ignore the feeling and press on, although I’m not really sure that’s the best way to handle it. But it does give me the freedom to be with the people I really want to be with. And yes, I just ended that sentence with a preposition. 🙂

    1. Yeah, we’re both introverts though I’m certainly not as “nerdy” as you.

      It’s one thing to ‘not fit in’ and be alone but a different experience to be the square peg in a church of round holes. I know you’ve probably experienced that, too. I’m going to experience it again in less than an hour.

  2. You read the Book of Ruth on Shavuot. Rabbi Fohrman has an excellent short video about some reasons for this. Ruth was a gentile who joined herself to her Jewish mother-in-law and so joined herself to the Jewish people.

  3. Ah, yes, I, too, have experienced that same realization:
    As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life.”
    Well done, brother James.

  4. For fun, with the influence of this video, we invited friends and ‘stayed up all night.’

  5. [In tears…] Thanks for your touching openness, James. This was/is definitely inspired. You (and those contributing as well, probably, as many reading) are my Shavuot Ekklesia for the commemoration, this year, of both “events” and their continuing meaning.

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