In the game “Truth-or-Dare,” I choose “truth” nearly every time. I’m not much of a dare-taker. Thus, if you and I were playing “Special Edition Truth-or-Dare: High Holy Days,” I would confess that the prayer Avinu Malkeinu provides me with both my second-favorite liturgical moment and my second-greatest pet peeve of the year’s liturgy. (Note: Even though I may have to repent for it, I will leave you in suspense about my favorite liturgical moment and my greatest liturgical pet peeve. Also, “Special Edition Truth-or-Dare: High Holy Days” is fictional, although I hereby declare copyright in the event Mattel or Hasbro comes knocking at my door.)
It was summer 2014, and Israel was at war. Tourists were sparse and so were volunteers. I was in a field outside Rehovot, picking daloriyot (butternut squash) alongside a dozen other visitors. And I was thinking of Ruth the Moabite.
In the Book of Ruth, which is read on Shavuot, Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem from their tragic sojourn in Moab, and Ruth goes to the fields to collect grain for herself and her mother-in-law. Leviticus (19:9-10 and 23:22) and Deuteronomy (24:19) state that the gleanings of the field belong to people who are poor, immigrants, orphans, or widows – and Ruth belongs to at least three of these categories. As a Moabite woman, whose husband died and who has arrived empty-handed in Bethlehem, Ruth is among the most vulnerable people in the land.
My little guy and his siblings, like so many children, are full of questions about God. All day, every day, their inquiring minds want to know: Where is God? Why is God? Who is God? And the most oft-heard question of all: Is God a boy or a girl? Or neither? Or both?
On a recent Friday night during services, after the ark doors were closed following Aleinu, my two-year-old daughter burst out screaming and had to be carried from the room. When I asked my wife later what had happened, she explained that Nava had wanted the Torah to come out, but it had not. My daughter loves Torah – in that absolute and forceful toddler love kind of way.
Given to us in that fateful moment at Sinai, Torah is our blueprint for sacred living – in relationship with God, the Jewish people, and all humankind. At Shavuot, we celebrate this gift by studying late into the night, eating sweets and dairy foods to symbolize the sweetness and lifeblood that Torah is for us, and making our own offerings to God: committing our children to the study of Torah and the embrace of Jewish tradition via confirmation.
In his greatest hour, Moses showed us we have nothing to fear. The tablets of God were broken, but we remain intact. Our task, too late for my patient but perhaps not too late for us, is to break the spell of Sinai. Only then, following Moses’ example, can we begin the real work of hammering out what constitutes a moral society.
On Shavuot, as we celebrate receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, we also celebrate the beginning of the harvest and the connection between the earth, God and us. Receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai includes accepting the teachings and values of the Torah that guide our daily lives.