As you read these words a small percentage of the world’s Jewish community is celebrating, or has just finished celebrating the holiday of Shavuot. Translated as Pentecost, Shavuot, in Hebrew means “weeks,” and celebrates a “week of weeks,” since the last biblically ordained holiday of Passover.
Tradition accords Shavuot with the day that the Jewish people received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The intermediate days, or “Omer” days, between Passover and Shavuot are counted. These two festivals, one of liberation, the other of law, are linked. Through this connection we are reminded that with redemption comes responsibility.
Freedom without a sense of purpose leads to anarchy. Consequently, the Bible commands us to live our days with a sense of holy obligation. It guides us with such principles as loving our neighbors as ourselves, using fair weights and measures, treating those most vulnerable with extra care, being vigilant caretakers of our world and its resources, and pursuing peace.
Shavuot is a yearly reminder that laws such as these are not made to be broken, they are not just given to be respected. They are created to be lived by and celebrated. That in part is why Shavuot, unfortunately, is perhaps the least known and celebrated holiday on the Jewish calendar.
Laws might be there for our protection, but really who wants to think about them, let alone celebrate them. As humans we would rather not be reminded of responsibility or of our maturity. What marks the real transition from adolescence into adulthood, is the acceptance of responsibility. For each person this awareness comes at a different point and develops over time, in stages, through the commitments of family, career and community. Yet it is our nature throughout our lives to be content with freedom without reflecting on the responsibility.
Consider the American example. Many democratic countries celebrate as national holidays not only their independence days, but the days they ratified their national constitutions as well. How ironic then that most Americans, living in the nation that helped spread democracy throughout the world, have no idea when our Constitution Day is. I had to look it up. It is Sept. 17.
Now pause to reflect on how significant the Constitution of our country truly is. It ensured the freedoms of a just society that we have enjoyed for centuries, and it created an example that has been replicated throughout the world, eventually shaping the governance of the very countries from which the original colonists had fled.
Remember the goal of the Constitution as articulated in the Preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
Not fully a realization of its universal mission, some denigrate the Constitution as an archaic document that is a product of a specific time and place. The same charge has been against the Bible. But just as Jewish law and tradition flourished, and continues to be developed, so has the Constitution and American law. And that power, coupled with flexibility, is in large part why both of these texts are sacred. They both are foundational codes that also allowed for progress and development. They are the first words, not the last.
Jewish tradition, through the holiday of Shavuot, teaches us that every Jew in every generation was there at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. Each American must also see themselves as bearers of the responsibilities of the Constitution. Just as we passionately celebrate the independence we achieved, as well as commemorate the sacrifices made to protect those liberties, so too must we mark Sept. 17, the day when we first undertook the protection of those freedoms through our sacred national code.
Just as the Jewish people have for millennia counted the days between Passover and Shavuot, perhaps one day we will celebrate a tradition of marking the days between July 4 and Sept. 17, marking the American journey from redemption to responsibility.
Rabbi Mark Blazer is the rabbi of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita.