Happy Anniversary, Jewish People!

Shavuot is nearly here.

Sometimes I think that Shavuot is the Jewish festival of the future. We know that in ancient times Sukkot was the most-anticipated Jewish holiday, so much so that people called it HeChag, THE Holiday. And in our own era, the big Chag is Pesach, or Passover. More Jews worldwide celebrate Passover in some form than any other event in the Jewish year. But the third Chag, the third pilgrimage festival mentioned in the Torah has not yet been the “big” festival. I wonder if there is some future age in which Shavuot will be the day we all anticipate?

Unlike the others, Shavuot is just one day, sundown to sundown. There are no sukkot for partying, no seder table at which to sit. Instead we eat some cheesecake, say the appointed prayers, and Torah students stay up all night and study. We do these things to remember the fateful day when we, as a people, accepted the Covenant and received the Torah.

I fell in love with Torah study during a Shavuot all-nighter, and it always feels a bit to me like an anniversary. It’s become a time to ask myself, what Torah have I learned this year? What do I want to learn in the future?

That feeling is actually not so far from the reality. A Jewish wedding ceremony consists of two parts: Erusin [betrothal] and Nissuin [the actual wedding.] If Passover was a betrothal, with a formal commitment and the giving of an object of value (freedom) then the Giving of the Torah was the wedding between God and Israel, joined forever in a covenant. This truly is our anniversary celebration.

In Bava Metzia 59b, the sages remind each other Lo b’shemayim hee – “She [Torah] is not in Heaven.” On Shavuot, this year on the night of May 23, we will celebrate the moment when Heaven and Earth met, and Israel accepted the Torah into her arms.

Perhaps one day we will find a way to celebrate Shavuot that will express the gravity and joy of the occasion. Until then, I will simply say, Chag Shavuot sameach – Happy Shavuot!

The Power of Love

English: An Aastra 53i VoIP handset. Photo tak...

It is taught: Rabbi Eliezer the great used to say: Why does the Torah warn in thirty six places – and some say, in forty six places – concerning the stranger? Because humanity tends towards evil. Why is it written ‘Do not wrong a stranger and do not oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’?  – Bava Metzia 59b

Over and over, the Torah repeats to us a commandment concerning the stranger, that we will not mistreat the stranger, that we will be kind to the stranger, that we will in fact love the stranger. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (“the great”), a first century rabbi, one of the greatest rabbinic minds in our history, commented upon it. He said that this commandment is repeated so often and in so many ways “because humanity tends towards evil.”

We tend towards evil especially where strangers, people not like ourselves, are concerned. The drive for survival wired our ancestors’ brains to think automatically in terms of “friend” and “enemy.” If someone is strange looking, he might be dangerous. “Better get her, before she gets me,” thinks the deepest parts of my brain, the parts that trained in scary places in the distant past, and less distant places, like high school and the business world.

Torah calls us beyond the programming we inherited from our ancient forbears.  It seems awfully risky to adopt “love” as our default approach. Our impulse to hate the stranger is embedded deep in the brain, so that it is intuitive to strike out at someone we see as a threat. It is surprising that the Torah commands it, but so it does, again and again and again.

On Aug 21, 2013, we were witnesses to a remarkable example of the wisdom of this Torah lesson. A young man walked into the Ronald McNair Discovery Learning Center in a suburb of Atlanta armed with assault weaponry and over 500 rounds of ammunition. One of the women he took hostage surely saw him as a stranger: he was white, she was black, he was armed, she was not, he felt he had nothing to lose, she feared for her life. And yet Antoinette Tuff looked at Michael Brandon Hill and she was able to see a human being, and to speak with him and to listen to him as a human being. And because she did that, no one died that day.

If you have not listened to the recording of their conversation made by the 911 operator, I recommend it. You can listen to it here: http://youtu.be/1kVpipSXRKA

I cannot imagine a higher-pressure situation than Ms. Tuff faced. But she chose to see Mr. Hill as a human being. She listened to him. She spoke to him from her heart. She did not talk down to him. Over the conversation: as he revealed the troubles that had led him to this very bad decision, she listened to him without judgment. “We all go through something in life.” She offered to walk out with him, to give himself up to the police.

She said, “We not going to hate you, baby.”

I don’t know that I could be that calm in the face of such a situation or could speak with such kindness to a man with a gun.  But I do know that’s what it sounds like to love a stranger.

What are we ordinary people to take from this? Perhaps the next time we see a stranger, we could observe our impulse to hate and fear that person, and then choose something different.  Perhaps we could choose love, and in doing so, choose life.