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A Social Justice Shavuot

Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah atop Mt. Sinai, signifying the sacred covenant between God and the Jewish people. The period of the Omer (the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot) and the evening of Shavuot itself are times of preparation for re-living the moment of revelation, and the entire Shavuot season is a time to reengage with Torah.

It has been said that the entire Torah exists to establish justice. Thus, through the study of Torah and other Jewish texts, Shavuot offers us an opportunity to recommit ourselves to tikkun olam, the repair of the world.  

You can incorporate social action themes into your Shavuot celebration in the following ways.

Collect Items for Charity

Jewish scholars took to heart the commandment to set aside a portion of the harvest for the poor. Rabbis connect pei’ah with other actions on which there is no fixed upper measure: the amount of first fruits, acts of loving-kindness and the study of Torah. Rabbi David Polish wrote that this list reveals “the attitudes and practices that the Rabbis considered to be of ultimate value. The [list] reads like an instruction book about how each of us should live our lives and reminds us about what is of limitless importance.”

On Shavuot, make canned goods, new socks and underwear, school supplies or unused toiletries the admission “price” to a Tikkun Leil Shavuot celebration. If collecting items such as school supplies or toiletries, create a station where people can assemble backpacks or toiletry bags throughout the evening. Donate these items to a charity that helps those in need of such items, like a homeless shelter or a shelter for abused women and children.

Feed the Hungry

The holiday of Shavuot is mentioned several times in the Bible. In Leviticus, Shavuot is linked to the commandments of pei’ah (leaving crops at the corners of the field for the poor) and sh’chicha (leaving the fallen grain for the poor). Even as we celebrate the first fruits and the bounty of the land, we are to remember those in need. Jews are commanded to provide for the stranger, the orphan and the widow (Deut. 24:19). Hence, rejoicing on Shavuot is incomplete unless even the poorest and most vulnerable members of society have enough to eat. 

Prepare food for those in need. Bake bread or muffins during the night, and deliver them, fresh and hot, to a local soup kitchen for morning breakfast. Or assemble bagged lunches of peanut butter and jelly or tuna sandwiches, fresh fruit or vegetables, juice boxes, and cookies. Deliver them to local soup kitchen to be distributed at breakfast so people have food for lunch.

Become a Tutor

While Torah study and education are timeless Jewish themes, they are especially resonate during Shavuot, the season of matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. So often, poor education contributes to the cycle of poverty. We can make a difference in the lives of at-risk children by sharing our love of learning and literacy. During the summer months, schools and libraries need volunteers in special programs for at-risk youth; tutoring can make a significant difference on their lives. Tutoring programs often require that volunteers commit to several months to ensure continuity for the children and adults in the program. Shavuot is the perfect time to make such a commitment in time for the coming academic year.

Beautify Your Area

There is a legend that when the Torah was revealed at Mount Sinai, the mountain blossomed with beautiful flowers. To remind us of the beauty of Mt. Sinai and the beauty of the Torah, it is customary on Shavuot to decorate our homes and synagogues with flowers and greenery. Carry this tradition a step further by spending part of Shavuot or the Omer working in a community garden, participating in a park clean-up in your area, or even beautifying a local cemetery in need of some TLC.

Commit to Fair Trade

At a Tikkun Leil Shavuot celebration, people stay up all night studying Jewish texts, a tradition many are able to maintain only by consuming caffeine, in particular, coffee. Most coffee is grown by subsistence farmers who are facing crisis as worldwide coffee prices have plummeted. Fair Trade coffee is a real solution. Fair Trade certification ensures that coffee farmers are paid a livable wage, while also promoting sustainable practices, such as organic farming. Become a home or congregation that serves only Fair Trade coffee, and use your Tikkun Leil Shavuot service to kick off and celebrate this commitment. Conduct a session to teach the importance of economic justice in the developing world. Provide an opportunity for participants to taste various Fair Trade coffees and vote for their favorite. Continue this important work by serving Fair Trade coffee at synagogue functions throughout the year and at home.  Learn more about Fair Trade coffee (including where to purchase it) from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.