D’var Torah – Shavuot 5769
Rabbi Maurice Harris
Shabbat shalom and gut yontiff. As we celebrate our 2nd Shavuot in our new home, I want to ask us all to take a moment to look around. We are so blessed. We have now completed one full cycle of Jewish holy days and sacred seasons, one full year of the cycle of the Five Books of Moses, one full year of ups and downs, controversies and moments of serenity, one full year of mitzvot and of mistakes. One full year of life. There are so many people who worked so hard to make this new home possible, and we have only just begun to discover the ways we can continue to grow as a community in this amazing space. Shavuot is a festival of offering our first fruits, the first fruits of our labor, to God. We, as a community, now can offer one year’s worth of Jewish living to the Eternal One as an expression of our thanks and our desire to bring greater meaning and unity into our lives and into the world.
Over the last 24 hours we have engaged three different texts in our observance of Shavuot. Last night we studied the Book of Ruth, which is traditionally chanted at Shavuot, and this morning we read the story of the giving of the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai in the Book of Exodus. Then, Rabbi Yitzhak chanted the assigned reading from the books of the prophets, which happened to be from the first chapter of the Book of Ezekiel.
Ruth, the 10 Commandments, and Ezekiel. Something I noticed about these three readings is where they take place. The Torah reading featuring the dramatic revelation at Mt. Sinai takes place not in the land of Israel, but in the Sinai desert, in the wilderness, in an in-between place that was neither Egypt nor the Promised Land. Ezekiel takes place in ancient Babylon, and tells the story of the visions and activities of a prophet who was sent into exile in Babylon along with the entire leadership of the ancient Israelite community some 2, 600 years ago. That leaves the Book of Ruth. Ruth takes place partly in the land of Moab, just to the east of the Land of Israel, and partly in the territory of Judah, which was part of ancient Israel. It is the Book of Ruth that brings us geographically closest to Jerusalem, as Ruth ends up making her new life as a Jew by choice in Bethlehem, which is only a few kilometers away from Jerusalem. Although the Book of Ruth never specifically mentions Jerusalem, because the city had not yet become the Israelites’ capital, the last words of the book point to Jerusalem. As many of you may know, the Book of Ruth ends with a genealogy that shows Ruth to be the ancestor of King David, and David’s name is the final word of the book. The Book literally points towards a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future.
It is that idea – a Jerusalem that has not yet been realized, a Jerusalem of the future – that caught my attention these last days.
The city’s name, Yeru-shalayim, roughly means “they will see peace” or “the inheritance – yerushah – will be peace.” Yet for the last 2500 years, Jerusalem has known so much war and far too little peace. As we all know, Jews, Christians and Muslims all consider Jerusalem to be sacred, and the mythic encounters with the Divine that are so central to all three of the Abrahamic religions intimately involve Jerusalem and the Temple mount itself. Just to illustrate this with one small example: in Arabic Jerusalem is called al-Quds, meaning “the holy.” This is from the same Semitic language root that forms the word kadosh in Hebrew. It’s as if our people had named the city ha-kadosh. And in fact, we have, as one of the city’s Jewish nicknames is Ir ha-kodesh, “the holy city.”
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