The 5770 Festival of Shavuot (“Weeks“) has ended. One of the Shalosh R’galim (or three pilgrimage Festivals), it had significant meaning for me this year as it was my first celebration of the Festival since my conversion in April. I waited weeks (pun intended – ha ha) for the Erev Shavuot and Confirmation Service my shul had Tuesday evening and the Tikkun Leil Shavuot that followed and I enjoyed every minute of the five-plus hours I spent immersing myself in Judaism.
I spent many years studying Judaism and like any good Religious Studies major, I took “Introduction to Judaism.” My professor at the time was new to me; he was the Chair of the Religious Studies Department at the University I was attending and he was also an observant Reform Jew and a convert. We covered the usual topics: how Judaism differs from Christianity, the Jewish Holidays and Festivals, and the Hebrew Bible and although we spent time with the Writings and the Prophets, we spent a majority of our time with the Torah.
As a Christian, I had studied the “Old Testament,” and was familiar with the first five books of the Bible but as we took an in-depth look into the Torah, I began to see that there was, indeed, a difference. The characters were the same, the stories were the same, and the storyline was the same, but the meaning was different. Suddenly, each character stood independent from his/her ” connection” with the Christian Bible, each story didn’t end with a supposed reference to Jesus, and the storyline didn’t harken to any time “Anno Domini” (commonly referred to as “A.D.”). I started to see the Patriarchs and Matriarchs through a Jewish lens and not only did their stories make more sense to me, I felt connected to them in ways that I never had as a Christian. I was invited to let the Torah speak to me and as I stopped to actually listen, what I heard was G-d speaking to my soul.
And that’s how it began. From that point on, I couldn’t get enough of the Torah (or the Prophets or the Writings, for that matter) and I still can’t. Each time we read from the Torah, I sit, amazed by what I hear and each time I read the Torah (especially in Hebrew, the language I believe the Tanakh is meant to be read in) I notice something different – something that didn’t seem to be there the last time I read it. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1757-1859), a Hasidic leader, said, “The Torah was given to all Jews alike, without distinction between one person or another. Yet, the Torah was received by each person differently, each according to personal perception and level of understanding.” This is the beauty of Torah – several people can each read the same parasha (“portion”) and each person will hear what G-d knows he/she needs to hear to best understand the meaning. And this is why I, as a Jew, am commanded to study Torah for if I allow myself to hear and/or read Torah only at services or once or twice a year, I miss the possibility not only to rediscover Torah, but the chance to hear exactly what G-d knows I need to hear in that moment.
The Reform Siddur, “Mishkan T’Filah,” includes an alternate reading for Shavuot that says, “…Torah, given amidst fire, is compared to fire. Just as fire lives forever, so do the words of Torah live forever. When one draws near to fire, one is burned by it; when one moves away from fire, one is chilled. On Shavuot, we warm ourselves by the light of Torah, our precious heritage.” Last night, I felt the warmth offered by Torah and as I basked in Its glow, I felt myself standing at Sinai among the crowd of stunned Israelites, seeing the lightning, hearing the thunder, and seeing Moshe descend the mountain, and as I took it all in, I felt the warmth that comes with belonging to something bigger than myself. I am a Jew, a member of the People of Israel. And I couldn’t be happier.