This week is the holiday of Shavuot. I am often asked by my students and colleagues, including the Jewish ones, what this holiday is all about. For some reason, this particular holiday seems to fly under the radar for many Jewish people. It gets designated as a “lesser holiday”. I cannot tell you why that viewpoint developed, but perhaps I can shed some light on why that is false.
Before I get into the importance of Shavuot, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. There is no such thing in Judaism as one holiday being greater or lessor ‘religious’ in nature. They are all important and all entail specific obligations that must be met if one is to observe them to the fullest extent. The difference is in the choices individuals make as to whether or not they choose to observe the requisite requirements. One of the dangers of confusing choice with obligations is that others choose to recognize the most convenient, or least disruptive, level of observance as the norm thereby discriminating against those who observe the letter and the spirit of Jewish law. How ironic is it that in this day and age, where we rally behind the rites of people to express themselves freely, to practice their own religion, to be free from discrimination, we still fall back on the idea that it’s OK to say that “most Jews don’t do this”’ or “most Jews don’t follow that”? Why is it that this sentiment is acceptable when referring to a portion of the Jewish population but not when referring to society at large? How can it be that society fails to recognize the extreme hypocrisy of supporting minorities while imposing the very same prejudices on observant Jews?
On the holiday of Shavuot the Jewish people receive the Ten Commandments. Of course, this event is in and of itself of enormous significance. The Ten Commandments can be considered foundational to the development of the Jewish people. They are the core elements that Jews follow which delineate us as good and G-d fearing people. The location where the Ten Commandments were delivered is also not without significance. The Jewish people received the Ten Commandments in the desert, a vast open land unclaimed by any one people. This emphasizes that the Ten Commandments were given to all of the Jews, not specific tribes or groups within the Jewish people; given to all of society, if you will.
The lesson in this is one worthy of note in our modern-day society. As a society, we implicitly or explicitly agree to follow a common set of laws and code of conduct. We agree that, barring harming others, we all share the right to live according to our own beliefs and practices. We need to be open and accepting of the fact that we share this planet with a multitude of individuals. That it belongs to all of us. There will always be those who are prejudiced against others. There will always be those who fear what they do not understand and hate what they fear.
It is our obligation, as members of society, to educate those that do not understand so that they no longer fear and, consequently, no longer hate. It is also our obligation as a society to make it absolutely clear to those who simply seek to impose their selfish, hateful views on others, who refuse to live in peace, or who demonstrate vile, abhorrent discriminatory behaviour towards others, that they are not welcome in our civilized society.
I wish you all a peaceful and enlightening Shavuot.