A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, May 30, 2011

Don't Miss Shavuot on June 7


A community wide Shavuot Celebration, called Up All Night, will be held this year at Rembrandt Yard, 1301 Spruce Street in Boulder, beginning at 8:30 pm on June 7th. I will be teaching as will other rabbis from the Boulder community. There will be Torah yoga, music, Jewish art, traditional learning, conversation, not to mention Ozo coffee, ice cream and other treats. Please come and stay as late as you like. “Up All Night: Shavuot in Boulder” is being sponsored by Rabbi Rose’s and Rabbi Goldfeder’s project, Soulfood, with a generous grant from 18 Pomegranates.

For those who want some basic information on Shavuot:

A Little Bit About Shavuot
Shavuot falls on the 6th and 7th of the Hebrew Month of Sivan. This year that corresponds to the 7th and 8th of June. In the Torah Shavuot (“Weeks”) is an agricultural festival. Along with Sukkot and Passover it is one of the three pilgrimage festivals during which the ancient Israelites would come to Jerusalem to make special offerings at the Temple. Eventually the rabbis of the Talmudic era proclaimed that Shavuot marks the day on which the Torah was given to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. Even for those of us who do not understand the Sinaitic revelation literally, Shavuot has become a day recognized as holy because it represents our receiving of Torah as a way of life.

Important customs associated with Shavuot are: Tikkun Leil Shavuot (“Set Order of Learning on the Night of Shavuot”), during which the community gathers to stay up all night (see below for details of the community-wide celebration this year); eating of dairy foods such as blintzes and cheesecake; using floral decorations in the synagogue and home; and reading the Book of Ruth.

A Bit More
Agricultural Origins
Shavuot, or Chag Ha-Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, is one of three names for this holy day. It is called “Weeks” in Leviticus 23 because the Israelites are told to start counting off weeks from the Second Night of Passover until they have counted seven full weeks, at which point they make offerings of bread and animal offerings.

In Exodus 23 it is referred to as Chag Ha-Katzir, the Festival of the [wheat] Harvest. It would have fallen at the time that the wheat crop was beginning to ripen.

The third name is comes from Numbers 28, where the holy day is referred to as Yom Ha-Bikkurim, the Day of the First Fruits. On this day the Israelites were to bring the first fruits of the season and offer them at the Temple. They would continue to do this until Sukkot (in the fall).

Shavuot and Revelation

Clearly Shavuot observance was rooted in agriculture, as at least the second two names – the Festival of the Harvest and the Day of the First Fruits – suggest. We should continue be blessed to view the creation of food as evidence of a divine presence active in the universe, creating and overseeing a mystifyingly complex web of life. And as the Torah tries to get us to see our food as a gift for which we must be thankful, and which we must offer back in some way to God, we should view the overwhelming material bounty of our own lives as a spiritual challenge to us to remain grateful, giving people – rather than people who act as if the whole world was created just for them.

But it is also true that each generation must breathe new life into Torah, to find new meaning that is concealed within ancient teaching. For our Sages – the spiritual leaders of the Talmud and early Judaism – Shavuot’s importance was not in its placement in the rhythms of the earth’s sustenance. It was that Shavuot was the day on which the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai.

How so? Step one is that the Torah tells us that the Exodus from Egypt happened in the month of Nisan. Step two is that Exodus 19:1 tells us that they entered the wilderness of Sinai on “the third new moon” after leaving Egypt. This would be the month of Sivan. Step three is that the rabbis agree that the Torah was given on Shabbat. The first Shabbat in Sivan would bring us to the current date of Shavuot (a rabbinic argument about a detail in the Torah results in the actual day of Shavuot being moved from the 7th to the 6th).

Finding Meaning in Shavuot Today

For us this rabbinic notion that Shavuot was the day on which the Israelites received the Torah continues to have meaning. But the power of the Festival is not in looking back and seeing the 6th of Sivan as a commemoration. Rather, we should view it as the day on which we will again receive Torah.

Torah in the broadest sense is what we celebrate and seek out on Shavuot. Not just the Five books of Moses but the centuries of interpretation, insights, extensions, and inspiration that have flow from this regenerating source in every generation, in every moment.

What role does Torah have in our lives? Jewish teaching begins with the assumption that each of us must learn to become a certain kind of person, that we must learn to create a certain kind of society, and that we must learn to develop fill relationships with other people and with God if we are to understand what it means to be fully human and to live a righteous life.

This is a tall order, but on Shavuot we open ourselves and commit ourselves to this reality. We affirm that the daily striving of our lives, the material concerns, the stress, the anxiety, the financial worry, the ambition – that it all has a broader spiritual purpose. We affirm as well that through a life of commitment to Torah values – to learning wisdom, to inspiring ourselves to become better people – we can imbue our lives and the lives of others with real meaning and inspiration.

The Talmud teaches that even the words of a great teacher in the present day were actually revealed at Mount Sinai. That is, the teachings of Torah are not just a collection of laws that happened long ago. They can be present and very real in our own lives.

It is significant that Torah was revealed on a mountain. It is a high place, removed from ordinary experience, a place to look up to, a place of transcendent beauty. But most important, it is an earthly place. High up, yes, but not beyond reach. Moses, an actual person, went up to Mt. Sinai and came back down, his face radiating the light of revelation. He came back down to the people Israel to share this light with them.

As Shavuot approaches, we prepare ourselves for this encounter with Jewish teaching and instruction, so that we might reinvigorate our spiritual lives with the energy of Torah.

Please join me and many, many others on Tuesday, June 7th at 8:30 pm at Rembrandt Yard, 1301 Spruce in Boulder.


  1. We are truly blessed in Boulder with Haver, a diverse set of rabbis who work together throughout the year. This is one of the their finest moments when the community can sample their collective wit and humor.

  2. Well said, if I do say so myself. Thanks, Dan.