This coming Saturday, we will not end Shabbat as we do most weeks, but rather we transition into the holiday of Shavuot. Although it is a holiday that fewer people observe than Passover or Sukkot, Shavuot reminds of a momentous moment in Jewish history.
Tradition teaches us that 50 days after leaving Egypt, our Israelite ancestors stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, heard God speak and received the Torah, which has been the foundation of our faith for thousands of years. Shavuot marks the moment when our ancestors were transformed from a band of former slaves descended from common ancestors to the Jewish people.
There is a curious midrash (legend) about the scene at Sinai that depicts God lifting up the mountain and holding it over the Israelites’ heads. “Accept the Torah,” God says, “or I will drop this mountain and it will mark your graves.”
It is a troubling version of the story because we like to believe that we follow our faith out of love, not out of fear. It is so troubling that when traditional commentators like Rashi tell the story, they include an addendum, that following the miraculous survival of the Jewish people in the story of Purim, the entire nation decided to re-accept the Torah out of gratitude and joy.
Since the theme of accepting God’s word is so central to Shavuot, it has always been a holiday dedicated to people who have converted to Judaism because a convert is a person who has chosen to accept the responsibility of being Jewish.
At services we chant the book of Ruth, which tells the story of one of our most famous converts. There is another beautiful midrash that the soul of every Jewish person who will ever live was present at the revelation at Sinai.
When I read the midrash, I think that perhaps Shavuot was given to us as a holiday for people who do not have family traditions the way born-Jews do. A convert to Judaism may not remember sitting in shul (synagogue) with his or her grandparents on Rosh HaShanah or being part of a giant family Seder on Passover, but can always say that he or she was there when we became a people.
The midrash above shows me how much our tradition values the ability to choose whether to observe or not, yet we often see cases where converts are the targets of discrimination or are not fully accepted as Jewish.
As a Conservative rabbi, I follow strict standards for conversion to Judaism as dictated by Jewish law. In addition to a period of study, a person must immerse in the mikvah (ritual bath) and a male must also have some form of brit milah (ritual circumcision). After completing these requirements, that person is Jewish in all regards.
My community is blessed to include a number of people who have chosen Judaism as their faith and they contribute with a passion that cannot be understood by someone who has been Jewish from birth. When Shavuot comes around, I am reminded to be thankful for their presence to be inspired by their commitment. We all have a great deal to learn from them.
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Shabbat candles should be lit for Shabbat on Friday, May 22 at 8:35 p.m.; for Shavuot on Saturday, May 23, after 9:39 p.m. and Sunday, May 24, after 9:40 p.m.; and for Shabbat on Fridays, May 29 at 8:40 p.m., June 5 at 8:45 p.m., June 12 at 8:48 p.m., June 19 at 8:51 p.m. and June 26 at 8:52 p.m.
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Editor’s note: Rabbi Michael Wolk, the rabbi of Keneseth Israel Congregation (Conservative), has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community.