2017-05-24 / Religion Column

The holiday of Shavuot’s many layers

Adath Emanu- El

Like so many holidays on our calendar, Shavuot pulls at different emotional and theological cords. As described in the Torah, Shavuot aligns firmly with our people’s agricultural roots. It is referred to as the time when, seven weeks after Passover, we “bring an offering of new grain to the Eternal” (Lev 23:16). There are accounts in the Mishnah of villagers assembling to bring their first fruits of the season up to the Temple in Jerusalem. We can therefore argue that Shavuot connects us not only to the history of our people, but also to the land of Israel itself, both past and present.

Later, Shavuot would become associated with our receiving the Torah at Mt Sinai. It is Rabbi Elazar, a scholar living in the 3rd century, who first refers to Shavuot as the time of the giving of the Torah (Tractate Pesachim 68b). Indeed, a significant element of Shavuot has us celebrate the fact that the Torah is ours to live and hold up high every day. God gave the Torah not only to Moses, but indeed to all of us, every Jew of every make-up in every land through time. Shavuot thus has us recommit ourselves to the full array of ennobling and challenging words and stories that constitute the very bedrock of our Jewish existence.

For many, Shavuot has an added layer of personal significance. The custom of Confirmation, a relatively new Jewish phenomenon, marks a significant moment in the cycle of the Jewish year. This is indeed a formative and lasting milestone, one of great beauty and meaning. It is on the holiday of Shavuot that 16-year-olds across the Jewish globe re-affirm their faith and their Jewish identity by leading the congregation in prayer and sharing their own thinking on everything from God to Israel to the complexities of Jewish life in the 21st century.

Formulated in 19th century Germany, many believed that the age of 13 was too young to mark official entry into Jewish adulthood. Confirmation came to replace outright Bar and Bat Mitzvah at many of the world’s first Reform synagogues. Now, clearly, the pendulum has swung and Confirmation supplements Bar/Bat Mitzvah by acknowledging the students’ ongoing Jewish development.

I love Confirmation and look forward to it every year. It is a highlight for me as a rabbi and a teacher. I suspect I am not alone in this regard. It is one of the most remarkable elements of Jewish communal life, when we bask in the inspiring maturity and wisdom of our teenagers. Having grown up in the synagogue, having moved from stage to stage of their upbringing, they stand tall on the bimah, sharing their own heartening understanding of Judaism.

In a world that can be so hard for our teens, a world of incredible pressure and stress, Confirmation stands as a process that empowers and moves in the most powerful of ways. Teens are celebrated for who they are, absent any grades or scores or ranking. Parents revel in their young adults’ grasping the Torah as their own, not to mention their stature, their inquisitiveness and their courage.

On this Shavuot, I pray for peace and strength for all of us. May we honor those who came before us and inspire generations still to come.

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