Rabbi’s Essays

The Festival of Learning

The Jewish year has a certain rhythm to it. Essentially it is bipodal, with the Sukkot and Pesach anchoring the opposite ends of the year (Autumn and Spring), and virtually all of the holidays either pointing forward or back toward one celebration or the other. This rhythm is created by an intriguing combination of nature and history. In its earliest stages as an agricultural community, Israel observed just the three harvest holidays—Fall, Spring and first fruits—in addition to Shabbat. Through the development of a more settled and urbanized culture, more holidays were added (first the High Holy Days, then Purim, Hanukah, Tu biShvat, Tisha b’Av and other fast days), and the original festivals themselves underwent a transvaluation that gave them non-agricultural purposes.

You may have noted that I have mentioned by name all the significant traditional festivals of the Jewish year, save one. Shavuot, among the earliest observances of the Jewish people, is also among the most elusive. Although technically comparable to Sukkot and Pesach, Shavuot is only a single day (two days in traditional practice outside of Israel) rather than a week long. The Jewish holidays are filled with symbols and signifiers: the shofar, sukkah, lulav, Hanukah candles, megillah, all the foods of the Seder table, and even the melody of “Kol Nidre.” Shavuot’s suffers from the lack of a palpable symbol. It does not help to say that the principal symbol of the festival is the Torah. The Torah is present on every Shabbat and holiday, and nothing particularly special is done with it on Shavuot.

Shavuot, however, does have a signifier, but not one that is tasted, touched or heard. The symbol of Shavuot is learning. By the beginning of the century, Reform Jews had moved their innovative Confirmation ceremony (originally a graduation from Religious School designed to take the place of Bar Mitzvah), to Shavuot itself. (Vassar Temple follows a practice of holding Confirmation as a weekday service on a Sunday close to the Festival.) Thus, the holiday gave public expression to the ancient Jewish devotion to learning—but only for children. The traditional practice of a “Tikkun”, an all-night study that would culminate with a morning service, including a Torah reading of the revelation on Sinai (Ex. 19-20), was mostly lost.

I would suggest a few reasons for this. First, and most obvious, is the rigor of an all-night anything. Intellectually, we might be able to appreciate the drama of maintaining an overnight vigil in preparation for a symbolic standing at the foot of Sinai in the morning. Practically, however, such drama is a bit too daunting for most of us. We might cut back to a few hours in the late evening. The participatory drama, so obviously felt for instance in the Pesach Seder, is thus mostly lost. All that is left is the celebration of learning.

And that is a problem as well. As modern Jews, we are saturated in learning. The average adult Reform congregant has at least some university education; many have a second or third academic degree. We brim with knowledge, and therefore hardly need a special holiday in order to celebrate it.

Of course, one might argue that the learning that is celebrated on Shavuot is not any sort of education, but rather Torah. And this brings us to my first question. We already know what we know; must we, as Jews, also study Torah in order to be educated? The brief answer is Yes. This answer, however, is obviously too simple. Being Jewish clearly entails a love of learning, a devotion to the people Israel and a commitment to the divinely imparted values of justice and compassion. In this context, cannot the average Jew leave Torah to the Rabbis?

Let me answer by way of a brief anecdote regarding my son’s graduate from college. In a series of ceremonies that took place over the weekend, I heard an array of speakers—graduating students, the President of the University, and special guests including the Mayor of Philadelphia and former US President Jimmy Carter—address the importance of continuing in a life of community service. No one talked about research, learning or academic excellence. Rather the message was repeated time and again that in a land of such wealth and opportunity, there are still significant pockets of deprivation and despair. It was an extraordinary series of speeches. Why no acknowledgment to these newly minted Bachelors, Masters and Doctors of the significance of their academic achievement?

Then I realized that at one of the premier centers of higher learning, mention of the attainment of knowledge was superfluous. Everyone—graduates, presenters and onlookers—knew what intellectual exertion was necessary in order to reach this day. Now it was time to focus on what all that learning was for. Leadership and service is the object of education. Unsaid, but unmistakably implied and understood, was that leadership and service was made possible by all that learning!

Our ability to be and do Jewish is inevitably dependent on our willingness to know Jewish. When the sage Shimon HaTzaddik declared that the world rests on Torah, Service and Loving-kindness, we learned as well from the Rabbis that service and loving-kindness rests on Torah. Must we all become Torah scholars in order to be good Jews and just, compassionate human beings? Not at all. But Torah must be a central and indispensable element of our Jewish aspirations. This is what Shavuot celebrates, and the re-emphasis on Tikkun is a welcome development.