Bread, Sinai, & Speaking in Tongues: Ten Notes on Celebrating Shavuot

Shavuot, the “Festival of Weeks” (referring to the “super-week” of seven weeks between Passover and the holy day of late spring -- 7x7 + 1=50) comes this year from Saturday night May 23 through Monday evening May 25.

 Here are ten steps into understanding Shavuot and its Christian offshoot, Pentecost (from the Greek for “50th day”), which this year falls on Sunday, May 24, the 50th day after Easter:

1. The Torah describes a festival that celebrates the fulfillment of the spring wheat harvest by offering at the Temple two loaves of leavened bread and the First Fruits of the farmers’ work and the land’s abundance.  This ancient understanding invites us to renew our connection with the Earth as a sacred connection with YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh , the Interbreath of life that connects all  life upon this planet.

2.  The text of Torah never gives any precise date for the Revelation of Torah on Mount Sinai.  The early Rabbis, bereft of the Land and strongly desiring that all future generations be able to experience the Torah in much the same way Passover made it possible for all future generations to experience the Exodus, interpreted Torah timing to make the biblical Festival of First Fruits into a festival of Torah.

Some Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah text then defined Revelation in radically open ways. Some suggested that the only expression that actually came forth at Sinai was the first letter of the Ten Utterances: an ALEPH. But the ALEPH is a “silent” letter, just an opening of the throat. So in that understanding, the deepest Truth was simply that the Universe opened its throat, wanting to speak.

3. In another view, the whole Revelation was the first word: ANOKHI,  the Hebrew for an elevated,

surpassingly awesome meaning of “I.”  (The ordinary Hebrew word for “I,” like the Latin “ego,” is “Ani.”) My own direct experience and understanding of this supernal I is here:  <https://theshalomcenter.org/content/sinai-universe-says-i>

4. In the treasury of so-called “Gnostic” ancient texts written in the Semitic language Coptic and found in our own generation hidden at Nag Hammadi in Egypt,  one was labeled  The Thunder: Perfect Mind.

Most of its 60-some verses begin with the same “ANOKHI, I” and they are almost all celebrations of a female, feminine, and paradoxically all-inclusive  understanding of God:

I [Anokhi] am the first and the last    

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

 I am she who is honored and she who is mocked

I am the whore and the holy woman    

 I am the wife and the virgin

 I am the mother and the daughter

 I am the limbs of my mother    

I am the sterile woman and she has many children

I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband

 I am the midwife and she who hasn’t given birth

 

I believe this text, like that in our officially accepted Torah, is an attempt to describe the Holy ONE Who became audible and visible in a transcendent moment at “Sinai.”  Its title evokes The Thunder that Torah says was seen, not only heard, at Sinai.  For the full text and the story of its recovery, see  <https://theshalomcenter.org/content/i-who-spoke-sinai-and-nag-hamadi>

5. In one of the Ten Utterances that come from Sinai, the Holy Voice  insists that we not “take My Name in emptiness.” I do not think that means never to say “Oh My God!” etc. I think it means to keep fully in mind that the Name YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh is a Breath; that we should always be aware that  every breath we take is the Name of God; and that the Breathing of our Mother Earth is the Name of God. “Do not breathe empty-minded, empty-hearted!” says the Voice.

Make a Shavuot practice of following your breath as it enters your body, is carried by your blood to every limb and organ, then leaves as you breathe out the CO2 to enter a tree, a field of grass -- and there to be transmuted into oxygen and breathed out, for us to breathe in. As you breathe, let your breath carry these words: "We breathe in what the trees breathe out, the trees breathe in what we breathe out."

6. Another of the Ten Utterances tells us, “Do not carve out false gods and worship them!”

I do not think this means only that we must not carve out and worship physical statues of stone or wood or metal.

 I think it means, “Do  not carve the One Flow into pieces and worship these mere pieces of Truth. Do not make gods of race or of nation, gods of wealth and of power, gods of greed and addiction. For these ‘gods’ may seem to have ears but hear not, hands but touch not, noses but breathe not.  These idols are dead,  and those who make them and worship them will bring death on themselves.”

7. Traditionally, the Haftarah (prophetic passage) that is read on the festival of Shavuot is Ezekiel’s mystical vision of the Chariot. Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz, in A Big Jewish Book, their amazing collection of the poetic, mystical, and subversive or superversive passages of Jewish wisdom over the past 3,000 years, make their own poetic translation of this passage.

For a way of reading it intended to lift the reader closer to Ezekiel’s own ecstatic state, first see <https://theshalomcenter.org/node/237>

and then <https://theshalomcenter.org/sites/default/files/ezekiel_chariot_rothenberg.pdf>

8. The early rabbis also decided that on Shavuot, we should also read the Scroll of Ruth. It celebrates the earthiness of the Torah’s understanding of Shavuot, and especially the Torah’s commitment to social justice in sharing the abundance of the Earth.  Ruth, a penniless woman from a pariah community, is treated with love, generosity, and justice.

Read the book, imagining Ruth as a penniless woman from Guatemala trying to enter the USA across the Rio Grande. How would she be treated today? How does the Bible demand she be treated?

9.  According to Christian tradition, there was a Shavuot on which Jews who were followers of the radical Rabbi Jesus --  who had been tortured to death because he organized spiritually rooted opposition to the oppressive Roman Empire  and its local puppet government -- gathered to celebrate the Revelation of Torah.

They experienced being touched by the Ruach HaKodesh – the Holy Breathing Spirit.  As if that Breath had spoken to them in every human language (as only Breath can do, since only Breathing encompasses all tongues), they found themselves able to speak in the 70 tongues of humanity.

In Christian tradition, this moment became known as Pentecost, from the Greek word for “Fiftieth Day.” From this moment they went forth to bring their vision to all peoples – sometimes by speaking words of conscience and sometimes by conquest, torture, and death..  From this moment stems all the spiritual triumphs and spiritual disasters of the Christian Church.

How do we make sure that the Holy BREATH is about speaking, not killing or torturing or conquering?

Christians have no monopoly on oppression, torture, or killing. Some Muslims, some Jews, some Buddhists (see Burma and Sri Lanka) have turned to tyranny, out of fear or privilege or fury. For a Jewish perspective on how the festival of Sinai and Torah might look upon the festival of Israeli independence, Yom HaAtzma’ut, see my essay at <http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2015/05/19/israel-is-the-name-of-a-people-also/>

10. Go back to experience again two lines from “The Thunder: Perfect Mind,” as what the “I” of Sinai spoke to us all:

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

These lines bring us back to the “Anokhi YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh,” the first words of Torah heard at Sinai.

For if the YHWH is a Breathing,  It would indeed be what everyone can hear and no one can say.

Its letters, if we try to pronounce them, would indeed be the name of the sound and the sound of the name. A Breath.

If we hear Her in the all-night Torah-learning that the mystics bequeathed us for Shavuot, could we learn to think, to feel, to commune, to be silent in a different way?

Could we hear the Shavuot of Harvest and the Shavuot of Sinai as One:

“I am the earthy food that goes into your mouth, and I am the airy words that come forth from your mouth.”

Could The Thunder teach us that Earth and Torah are one, The One?

Could we hear the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Breath that interbreathes all tongues, all languages, all life-forms, reminding us to Hush’sh’sh’sh, to Sh’sh’sh’sh’ma – to Listen to the still “silent” Voice and cease from our oppressions of each other?

May the Shabbat and Shavuot that come at this week’s ending and next week’s beginning help us achieve these deepening of Spirit in the body!

P.S. If these ways of experiencing Shavuot appeal to you, click to <https://theshalomcenter.org/civicrm/event/info?reset=1&id=12>. There you can join a Shabbat/ Shavuot retreat from this coming Friday afternoon May 22 to Monday afternoon May 25 that Rabbis Phyllis Berman, Jeff Roth, and I will be leading at a lovely retreat center between New York City and Philadelphia. Last Call – All aboard who’s getting aboard!

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