Voices of Faith: Re-imagining the covenant as we mark Shavuot – Record-Courier

By Rabbi Michael Ross| Record-Courier

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot begins at sundown on Sunday and concludes two days later, on Tuesday, at dusk.

Shavuot is not a well-known, or deeply celebrated holiday compared to Passover, Chanukkah, and Yom Kippur. Seven weeks after the Passover seder, Jews mark the spring harvest festival with cheesecake and dairy feasts. Because this holiday is rooted in the experience of Mount Sinai and the desire to maintain our obligations through education, this holiday has been a time when many synagogues hold their confirmation ceremonies and graduation ceremonies in honor of student learning.

At Passover, Jews try and relive the myth of leaving slavery in Egypt and entering freedom. Seven weeks later, we enter the other complimentary, bookend myth, of arriving at Mount Sinai and experiencing revelation. At Shavuot, we are wondering about the terms of the covenant, and how we can fulfill this covenantal relationship in contemporary times.

Traditionally, this was understood as observing the 613 commandments, or mitzvot. I want to offer us a new take at the covenant to try and make it relevant today.

About a decade ago, I realized that few Jews in my generation felt obligated to perform the commandments. Unlike my parents generation, which still feels a sense of obligation, my generation needed to find direct ways to connect to the sense of obligation to spiritual living and spiritual community.

I call this re-imaging of the covenant, the Four Embraces. They are four categories of spiritual life that can encourage us to become our best selves.

Practice embracing holiness in your spiritual self-care. What brings you a sense of groundedness, and centeredness in your life today? Whether its prayer, meditation, yoga, running, gardening, How can I cultivate a deeper, nourishing practice that will replenish my body and my soul?

Experience: During the pandemic, I rediscovered bike riding, and embraced this practice on a frequent basis this spring. When I am alone on my bike I notice a deep sense of gratitude and presence in my life.

Practice embracing holiness in your relationships. When do you notice holiness in your relationships? How can you be radically present to your beloveds and friends? Can I spend more time actively listening to these folk and deepen each of my relationships?

Experience: I could be a better active listener. Its a spiritual challenge for me to set aside my own ideas and explore the perspective of the person I am encountering. When I do this work, I build trust in the relationship, and I become more attentive to how I can be a better listener.

Practice embracing holiness in your spiritual community. Pandemic life has upended many of our communal practices. How have we maintained a sense of community through these dark times? How will our spiritual communities change to adapt to this crisis?

Experience: Zoom prayer services and Zoom Torah study have been invaluable for us. When I am in my spiritual community, I notice that I dont only take care of my own needs, but I also try and function for the benefit of my communitys needs.

Practice embracing holiness in your lifelong learning. Many of us stop our formal learning after we graduate from college. Many spiritual seekers stop formal education when we affirm our spiritual path in a coming-of-age ceremony like a bar mitzvah. How many of us never learn about our spiritual wisdom traditions as adults? How can we bring our adult perspectives and mature thinking to our spiritual lives? How can we become curious about our wisdom traditions?

Experience: Pandemic living has asked us to think differently about our lives. I have spent much time expanding my knowledge about issues we are facing as a community: racial justice, climate change, and poverty.

What I love about these four categories is that it does not matter if one is more observant or less observant. Each individual can find their own path, based on their own life experiences to this work.

This Shavuot, as we recommit to our covenantal relationship to divinity, may we find ways to embrace these four spiritual practices to bring balance, holiness, community and justice to our lives.

Rabbi Michael Ross is the Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Hudson and the Senior Jewish Educator at Kent State Hillel. He also teaches in the Jewish Studies department at Kent State.

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