by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, The Shalom Center
From the evening of Tuesday, June 3, through the evening of June 5, Jews will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot, which in most of Jewish life today is focused on the revelation and acceptance of Torah at Mount Sinai.
And since Shavuot became transcribed in Christian tradition into Pentecost, perhaps Christians as well as Jews might learn from reexamining this holy day.
The Hebrew word “Shavuot” means “Weeks.” Its name comes from the festival’s timing in regard to Passover: It comes after a “week of weeks,” seven weeks and one day, beginning on the second night of Passover.
In Biblical Israel, Shavuot was the celebration of a successful spring wheat harvest. For seven weeks, the community anxiously counted its way into the precarious abundance of harvest. The counting began on Passover as each household brought a sheaf of barley to the Temple, for the barley crop ripened before wheat.
On the 50th day, there was a unique offering at the Temple—two loaves of wheat bread—regular leavened bread, not unleavened matzah, on the only occasion all year when leavened bread was offered.
This agricultural celebration of Shavuot fit into the broad pattern of Biblical Judaism. During the Biblical era, spiritual leadership of the People was held by a hereditary priesthood defined by the body from birth and skilled in the body-rituals of bringing various foods (beef, mutton, matzah, grain, pancakes, fruit) as offerings to a physical place.
Sometimes everyday life is just a little too coarse, a little too violent. Rand Paul’s ignorant undermining of the Civil Rights Act makes me feel terribly sad. The guys who whip through stop signs in their $40,000 Lexuses stun me with their arrogance, smallness, and stunted sense of generosity. The fact that the families of the 11 oil roustabouts killed in the BP rig explosion had no bodies to bury (see a moving NPR report here) makes me irrationally angry. I want BP and Transocean and Halliburton executives to have to look on the bodies of the men they killed.
And yet, I’m trying to hold all this in biblical context. These are all examples of the excesses of Empire. This is the absurdity or vanity or meaninglessness that Qoheleth addresses at the opening of Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” (1:2).
One of the products of Empire in the bible is a constant dehumanizing pressure on the people that leads to a “culture of despair.”
“Anguish reigns, the spirit is crushed, life is diminished and paralyzed. All of us, in some way, for different reasons, have felt this sensation of closed horizons. For this situation, even though it seems incredible, the book of Ecclesiastes has something to say,” writes Mexican liberation theologian Elsa Tamez.
(For more on this, read Tamez’s brilliant interpretation of Ecclesiastes called When the Horizons Close.)
The opposite of the “monoculture” demanded by Empire is the Pentecost movement that blows uncontrollably, creating a generative “togetherness” out of dizzying diversity. It’s this violent Wind of God that blows down the idols of Empire and restores the unique “tongues of the people.” The Spirit undoes the Empire’s “cash English” (see Acts 2) and restores the parlance of poetry.
Into this context comes Benedictine Joan Chittister’s reflection from her new book Uncommon Gratitude: Alleluia For All That Is .
Unity is more than solidarity and more than uniformity. Unity, ironically, is a commitment to becoming one people who speak in a thousand voices. Rather than one message repeated by a thousand voices, unity is one message shaped by a thousand minds.
In times of great social change, as now, in times when the very foundations of life are in threat of collapsing, as now — when the very nature of life and death, of spirit and matter, of mind and body, of technology and people — are in question, the temptation is to avoid the ambiguities of the future by requiring the institutionalization of the past. Then churches tell people what they can think and governments tell people what they can’t do, the courts make law and the military makes weapons. Then everything is made to look united again, but nothing really is.
The kind of unity that is born out of differences and becomes the glue of a group has four characteristics: it frees, it enables, it supports, and it listens. A group that is genuinely unified is a group that has freed every member to be themselves. In fact, the truly united group knows that every idea, every voice, counts in the process of idea formation.
Without the collection of ideas, no consensus is possible. Then the group is reduced to the kind of compliance that wilts in the noonday sun.
Then we begin to hear: “Well, I never thought it was a good idea in the first place.” Then we know that even at the height of its power, underneath it all the group lacked heart.
For the freedom to ask questions without reprisal in the face of contrary concepts, sing alleluia. To seek unity means that enabling people to speak without fear and without hesitation must become the cornerstone of discussion. Ideas must be sought out. Answers must be elicited. Hesitations must be defined. Cautions must be honored before unity in diversity is possible. But when it comes, sing alleluia because then all the talents of the population are wholeheartedly engaged in the enterprise.
For a people to know unity they must also know the support that comes when people who speak another truth are as respected for that perception as they would have been for agreeing with the majority in the first place. I can only give myself to a group that not only tolerates my differences but seeks them out. That way, when a decision is finally forged out of the fire of differences, there is no doubt that it carries within it all the passion the group has to give.
Finally, unity depends on listening, not only to begin it but also to sustain it. No decisions are made once and forever. No unity can be perpetual if it revolves around a changing center. No good thing can be guaranteed to stay good throughout time. It is so easy to make an idol out of a time, a place, a decision, a group that once was united but now, in the light of another, newer day, is not.
Then it is time to begin again. Then the unity must be tested and reshaped. It is a very holy process, the search for unity. It is an alleluia moment made for eternity but welded and rewelded by time.
I’m hungry for that renewal of Spirit that leads to authentic human freedom. I need to be in that “holy process.” I’m clinging to the tail-end of the Alleluia and praying for a high wind.