[This fall, Americans will hold an extraordinary election –- addressing profound questions of health and life in the midst of a pandemic plague, democracy in the midst of Hyperwealthy pharaohs, and survival of a million species (including our own) in the midst of global scorching.
[At 8 pm Eastern Time on Thursday, May 28, the eve of Shavuot, there will be a Zoom conversation among a range of rabbis, youth activists, cantors and other singers, poets, and organizers about “greening and growing the vote” during the period beginning with Shavuot.
[The Zoom conversation is co-sponsored by The Shalom Center, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Dayenu: A Jewish Call for Climate Action. Faryn Borella is a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Ira Silverman Memorial Intern at The Shalom Center. Her essay here draws on the Torah roots of “Grow the Vote.” You can register to join the conversation, including breakout groups for your own conversation, by clicking here: https://tinyurl.com/Shavuot2Sukkot -- AW, ed.]
Shavuot as Eco/ Social Contract: Grow the Vote!
By Faryn Borella
Shavuot began as an agricultural festival. A pilgrimage festival. A festival of the first fruits.
Shavuot became a revelation festival. A Torah festival. A covenant festival.
In some ways, these two frameworks can feel like opposite poles. Shavuot as agricultural festival is about earth, land, harvest, offering. Shavuot as revelation festival is about book, mind, intellect, law.
Yet in both instances, Shavuot is about opting into a social contract, a political system, and an ultimate sovereign in Hashem Eloheynu--the divine that is our divine.
In biblical times, during Shavuot, devotees of Hashem from all over the land would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem, carrying their first fruits to offer up to their one true sovereign at the Temple.
“Early in the morning the officer would say: “Let us arise and go up to Zion, into the house of Hashem our God” (Jeremiah 31:5). Those who lived near [Jerusalem] would bring fresh figs and grapes, while those who lived far away would bring dried figs and raisins. An ox would go in front of them, his horns bedecked with gold and with an olive-crown on its head. The flute would play before them until they would draw close to Jerusalem.
"When they drew close to Jerusalem they would send messengers in advance, and they would adorn their bikkurim. The governors and chiefs and treasurers [of the Temple] would go out to greet them, and according to the rank of the entrants they would go forth. All the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would stand up before them and greet them saying, “Our brothers, men of such and such a place, we welcome you in peace.” The flute would play before them, until they reached the Temple Mount.
"When they reached the Temple Mount even King Agrippas would take the basket and place it on his shoulder and walk as far as the Temple Court. When he got to the Temple Court, the Levites would sing the song: 'I will extol You, O YHWH, for You have raised me up, and You have not let my enemies rejoice over me.' (Psalms 30:2).” Mishnah Bikkurim 3:3-5
In bringing these first fruits to the Temple, the devotees of YHWH were reaffirming, each year, their commitment to the covenant and their trust in the king and the priests to serve their best interests as the appointed officials of Hashem’s order. With their bodies, their movement, their journey, their offering, they reenacted Sinai in their own way each and every year, consenting to covenant and consenting to God over and over again. For, at its root, shevuot means “vows.”
Their “eco/ social contract” included not only human beings but all the other life-forms that created the harvest and made human community possible: pollinators, earthworms, seed, streams, dew, sun, air, wind.
Rabbis remade Shavuot in their image. Or perhaps they simply unearthed something about the holiday that was always already there. They tugged at the thread of consent, covenant and divine-human relationship and spun it on a new wheel. They spun it into a covenant of klaf. Of black fire on white fire. Of the entirety of unfolding tradition in one moment and every moment.
For “All the people answered as one saying, ‘All that YHWH has spoken we will do.’" (Exodus 19:8). A moment at which we were all there, are all there, and will continue to all be there. And in that moment, we are all saying yes. Yes to Hashem. Yes to rule of law. Yes to the social contract.
Biblical Israel was an aristocracy. Rabbinic Israel was a meritocracy. In neither case do we find democracy. And yet, as our civilizations change, so does our rule of law. So does the way we opt into social contract. In the shift from Biblical to Rabbinic Judaism, you see the way one entered into covenant shifting from bringing offering to the Temple Cult to engaging in the study of Torah, God’s divine revelation. So what is our equivalent in contemporary times. How do we opt into social contract?
Today, social contracts are formed through the process of voting. Through an electoral, representative democracy. Whether that be at a local level within our very own synagogues, or at a national level where we try to change the course of an entire country of mixed multitude, our system is set up so that to vote is to make change. And now more than ever, we need to embrace Shavuot as a time calling us into active engagement in the formation of and consent to our covenant.
But not everyone has equal access to their civic duty, despite what the powers-that-be might try and convince us to believe. In biblical times, only those who owned lands, produced agricultural product and who had the means to make pilgrimage could do so. In rabbinic times, only men of a certain level of literacy could opt into social contract through the act of studying Torah and deriving its law. And now, our electoral system is set up to disenfranchise voters and potential voters whose collective being might actually alter the status quo. Through gerrymandering. Through a racist and classist voter registration process. Through polling hours and the fight against mail-in ballots. And in our own moment, by minimizing the import of free and fair election in a moment of global pandemic.
So on Shavuot, we are not only called to do our civic duty. We are called to ensure that the entirety of klal America can too.
Yet reaffirming covenant doesn’t end in Shavuot, and neither does our election cycle. On the contrary, it is just the beginning. In biblical times, Shavuot served as the beginning of the period of time in which one could bring first fruits as a gesture of reaffirmation of the covenant. The beginning of a time that ended on Sukkot.
Sukkot this year falls shortly before the 2020 Presidential Election. How can we, in contemporary times, use the extended period of first fruits as a time where we too can be in a continuous and iterative process of active participation in covenant-building? How does a season of growth, harvest and offering call us to be more engaged, active and committed to our own democratic process?
In biblical times, every 7th year, during the intermediary days of Sukkot, the entirety of Klal Yisrael was called to gather in Jerusalem before the King, who would recite before them excerpts of Torah that related to covenant with community, covenant with leader, and covenant with Supreme Sovereign, an iterative, systematized process of reaffirmation of the Covenant. This always directly followed the year where the land was called to be left fallow and unharvested.
In this moment of global pandemic, we find ourselves too in a time of being left fallow. Of waiting. Of surrender to forces beyond our understanding. But may we soon gather, in whatever form gathering may become, to be reminded that no covenant can exist without our continuous and willing consent. And that means all of us, not just those of us to which the system is willing to give some power. May we use this time of global pandemic, of first fruits, from Shavuot to Sukkot to ensure that we all can and will give consent, come November, to our form of governance and our leadership. May we ensure that that to which we are consenting is good, just and fair.
From Shavuot to Sukkot, grow the vote!
You can register to join the conversation, including breakout groups for your own conversation, by clicking here: