The message of the forgotten festival

The message of the forgotten festival

Next week, Jews around the world will celebrate the festival of Shavuot, marking the day God gave the Torah to the Jewish people. According to tradition, not only was the entire Jewish nation that escaped slavery in Egypt in attendance, but also the soul of every Jew that would ever live. One could easily make the argument that we’ve been apart ever since.

Whereas millennia ago we were one people, today our divisions are nearly impossible to number yet easy to find. The Orthodox thumb their noses at the Conservative, who resent the Reform, while no one gets along with the “Ultra-Orthodox.” The unaffiliated don’t want to have anything to do with the rest of us. Israelis don’t appreciate American Jews telling them what to do with their land, and Americans can’t understand why the Israelis aren’t willing to compromise with the Palestinians. Jewish Democrats are angry that the emerging sect of Jewish Republicans refused to stand with them in opposition to a man they believed was unfit for the presidency, while Jews on the political right are dumbfounded that their brethren can’t see that Israel would be better off with anyone not named Barack Obama. 

And yet. 

Outside forces, including a sharp rise in anti-Semitism, both locally and nationally, as well as in Europe, may serve to galvanize us for the sake of our survival. The Birthright Israel program is now an institution, and tens of thousands of young Jews throughout the United States are developing a personal connection with Israel, and with the Israelis they meet. With the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign gaining momentum in an effort to delegitimize Israel, and most members of the United Nations continuing to spew hate and lies about the Jewish state, it’s reasonable to suggest that the growing threat to our ancestral homeland could bring us together to defend it.

We’re similarly encouraged by some of our efforts at home. Consider that nearly 500 people crowded into the Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany to hear journalists Yossi Klein Halevi and Bret Stephens discuss the impact of the 1967 Six-Day War a couple of weeks ago. Despite the variety of religious and political affiliations in attendance at the event, co-sponsored by NJJN and Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, and though Klein Halevi and Stephens debated controversial subjects, the mood was collegial. Indeed, the differing views resulted in polite conversation, rather than discord.

And we are hopeful that we’ll see more events like the annual Torathon that took place in Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge in Middlesex county last month. Ten local rabbis — affiliated with Chabad and the Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Traditional movements, all gathered under one roof and lead various learning sessions throughout the day. 

The internal disputes will continue, of course. But this year in particular, when acrimony threatens to deepen our divisions, let’s think of Shavuot as more than just the holiday where we eat cheesecake and recall the scene where Charlton Heston descends from Mount Sinai with the two tablets in hand. Sometimes referred to as The Forgotten Festival — no seder, no sukkah — it commemorates the moment, according to tradition, when the Jewish people encountered God — a time to dedicate ourselves to once more becoming what we were that day thousands of years ago: one.

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