Sermon: Shavuot 2015 (Dr Helena Miller)

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 26 May 2015

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a talk about the Anglo-Jewish community to a group of Israelis visiting the UK. They were on a Leadership programme and this trip was their opportunity to explore a Diaspora community. Through my work at UJIA, I often speak to non-British groups about Jewish life in the UK and about Jewish Education in the UK. Every group is unique. The parts of my presentations that they find interesting are never identical, but over the years, I have noticed several themes emerging. These themes focus on what makes us particular as Jews in Britain and also on what connects us through our faith and culture to Jews elsewhere in the Diaspora and in Israel.

They are always an opportunity for us to think about our Jewish lives.

I am going to talk about four of the themes that come up regularly during these talks, and reflect on each of them in the context of Shavuot.

Theme One: a community of immigrants: Shavuot and the story of Ruth

Theme Two: belonging: Shavuot as Matan haTorah

Theme Three: educating our children: Shavuot as a celebration of first fruits Hag Ha Bikkurim

Theme Four: cultural differences and similarities: Shavuot as a dairy festival


Theme One: a community of immigrants:

I usually start my talks to groups from overseas with a bit of an Anglo-Jewish history lesson. Groups are  surprised when they find out that Jews have lived in the UK for many hundreds of years. They are shocked that the Jewish population in the UK only represents 0.5% of the UK population. They cannot believe that Judaism only comes 6th in the list of faiths, after Christianity, those with no faith, Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.

I talk about the Jewish immigrant experience in the UK and I always relate that to the topical wider immigrant issue in the UK. To me, the issue is very clear: we were immigrants and so we have a responsibility to understand and support immigration of others. Throughout our history, and through Torah, we read about our people’s migration – from Canaan to Egypt, from Egypt to Eretz Yisroel. During Shavuot, we read the story of Ruth, a story of immigration – Ruth follows Naomi as they leave Moab and journey to Israel. Ruth says to Naomi “your people shall be my people”. We know that for Ruth, that means she will convert to Judaism. For many immigrants, they want to retain their own religions, but they do want to fully participate in life in their new homeland. Ruth embraced her new land and went on to hold a significant place in our history. This would not have happened if she had remained in Moab.

My view is not always shared by the groups I talk to. One participant in a recent group commented: but the UK Jewish community is fully settled here now. Why should you worry about anyone else?


Theme Two: belonging

The groups I address are always surprised by the high affiliation rate of Jews in the UK. The Institute of Jewish Policy Research tells us that according to the 2011 census, 73% of Jewish households belong to synagogues.  This is far higher than in most other diaspora countries. But, as we know, that doesn’t mean that 73% of Jewish families attend synagogue.  If we look around our shul today, we probably have less than 5% of the Alyth membership here today. And it’s a Sunday, so no one has to take time off from work, or school, or have to negotiate parking restrictions.

Of course, if it was Yom Kippur it would be different – we know that on that holiest of Holy days, the majority of Alyth’s membership do connect to the shul. Part of the challenge is, that among the festivals we celebrate, Shavuot is perhaps the least known and the least celebrated. Whereas Pesach and Yom Kippur are celebrated by the majority of Jews worldwide, Shavuot, probably together with seventh day Pesach, remains in the background. In Israel, Shavuot is a known festival because it is a public holiday that has become the festival of dairy products. Most Israelis are not aware of any significance of the festival beyond this custom to eat cheese and other milk dishes.

In the Diaspora, Shavuot does not have a national significance and many Jews are not even aware of the very existence of the festival.

The non-celebration of Shavuot is a paradox given the important significance of the festival. As you know, Shavuot marks the end of the seven week counting of the Omer cycle starting on the second day of Pesach and is a culmination of the Exodus from Egypt. On Pesach we celebrate the birth of the Jewish people, the birth of our nationhood. On Shavuot we have a double celebration, the celebration of our inheriting the Land of Israel and the celebration of the Revelation at Sinai, a celebration that was added in the post Talmudic period.

The celebration of inheriting the Land of Israel was marked by a pilgrimage to the Temple and the bringing of the first fruits. This Temple focus of Shavuot made it an Israeli festival with almost no significant manner of celebration in the Diaspora. Three months after leaving Egypt, and before they set out to wander in the desert, the Israelites found themselves camped out at the base of Mt. Sinai, awaiting the revelation of God’s teachings. The Rabbis were able to determine therefore, that Revelation coincides with Shavuot. While Shavuot had no ‘historical’ event associated with it in the Torah, and the event of Revelation had no holiday to mark it, and both do not have actual dates in the Torah, it was a perfect match. Shavuot became the historical holiday of Revelation. Its transformation from a holiday of nature to a holiday of Torah was complete.

The agricultural roots of Shavuot were probably enough for the farming society of ancient Israel, but they didn’t really allow for a meaningful holiday for Jews once they were outside the Land of Israel, where farming was on a different cycle and there was no Temple to which one could bring the seasonal offerings. In exile, the agricultural holiday of Shavuot would have disappeared.  When the festival became a celebration for the Revelation and of Matan haTorah, the giving of the Torah, this second aspect of Shavuot became the primary aspect of celebration, with Shavuot becoming dedicated to Torah study.

Regretfully, Shavuot has become both a reflection and a description of the Jewish reality. For those for whom Jewish identify is strong, the festival is celebrated in meaningful ways. However for those for whom Jewish identity is less strong, it is almost ignored.

Part of our challenge is that there are no particular mitzvot, or commandments, associated with Shavuot.  There are, however, several rituals that are traditional components which connect to Matan haTorah.

Study is one tradition of Shavuot. This custom evolved from the midrash that says that when the Israelites were at Sinai, they overslept and had to be awakened by Moses. As a result, and to prevent this happening again, some Jews stay up all night to study and to celebrate receiving the Torah. These events, known as Tikkun Leil Shavuot, which literally means “repair, or heal, for the night of Shavuot,” are understood as the custom of studying with a community in order to re-experience standing at Mount Sinai, where the Jewish people received the Torah. The Tikkun Leil Shavuot was developed by 16th century mystics in Tsfat, who believed that by studying on Shavuot, they were symbolically preparing Israel to enter into a sacred relationship with God. Modern interpretations and versions of this practice include study on a wide range of topics, although not necessarily for the whole night!


Theme Three: educating our children

Every group I talk to from overseas is amazed to hear that Jewish schooling in the UK is funded by the Government. In almost every other part of the world, it is not. In America for example, where there is a complete separation of Church and State, it typically costs between £15,000 and £20,000 a year to send your child to a Jewish school. In the UK, the Government contributes up to 90% of the cost of building a Jewish school and all the running costs apart from those associated with the Jewish studies.  So it’s not surprising that overall more than 50% of Jewish children in the UK attend Jewish schools.

The element of Shavuot that many Jewish primary schools focus on is the connection with the land – Hag haBikurim – the bringing of the first fruits to the Temple and the Spring harvest. Various customs have developed to celebrate this aspect of the holiday: babies are brought to be blessed at synagogue, baskets of fruit are distributed to the elderly or housebound, synagogues are decorated with flowers.

One of my earliest and most challenging moments as a Jewish school parent came in the preparation for Shavuot.  In Israel, there is a custom of children dressing in white and wearing flower crowns as they celebrate Shavuot. When our son was at Alyth Kindergarten, the custom was for us parents to make elaborate and beautiful flower crowns for their children to wear, from very clear, but strict, instructions from Eva Jacobs, the Head teacher. I am a creative person, but this was beyond me. Arieh’s crown looked more like a bedraggled bonnet of weeds than a luxuriant crown of flowers.

Many Jewish schools use the connection of Shavuot to Torah to mark the festival with a ceremony to give each child their first siddur or Chumash. The creation of customs such as these helps to give a framework, a meaning and a structure to a festival where, as I have said, there is very little compulsory ritual.


Theme Four: Cultural differences and similarities:

Some time ago, I watched a colleague at UJIA illustrate how differences between the Diaspora and Israel can be misunderstood. He was talking to a group of Jewish educators from Israel, visiting the UK. He held up a gefilte fish ball, of the sort we see here at Alyth in their hundreds every Shabbat and Yomtov at kiddush. What is this he asked them? Immediately, the Israeli audience answered “a falafel”.

I think this example shows that we all relate to our surroundings from our known cultural experiences.

I have had many similar experiences of how our differences separate us. But what always strikes me more forcefully whenever I meet a Jewish group from overseas, is how much, in fact, unites us. And although I have emphasized what surprises and what amazes others about Jewish life in the UK, there are far more instances of acknowledgement and understanding about Jewish life in the UK. Examples of where our known experiences are in fact, very alike each other.


And so, on Shavuot we celebrate the completion of the Jewish triangle.

We celebrate our Jewishness as a people, as a religion and culture, and as a connection to the Land of Israel.

Jewish tradition compares the words of Torah to the sweetness of milk and honey.  This is particularly appropriate on Shavuot, when we mark both matan torah and the tradition to eat dairy foods. As we finish our service today here at Alyth, and resume our Jewish lives here in North West London, we should take a moment to think of both what makes us particular as Jews in Britain and what connects us through our faith and culture to Jews elsewhere in the Diaspora and in Israel.

Chag Sameach.