June 2016, Queens Birthday, Shavuot….Tradition

Dear friends,

This weekend is a loaded and extended one marking both the festival of Shavuot and the Queen’s birthday. And they both raise many baffling questions. Why, for instance, do we not celebrate the birthday of Her Royal Highness on April 21, her actual birthday? And why do Queenslanders celebrate it on October 3 and WA on September 26? Furthermore, she was born on a Wednesday, why are we so obsessed with the Monday, the only consistent element of the three states? And this is but the tip of the iceberg.

So too, with Shavuot – a time we commemorate receiving the Torah. The most widely recognised practice on this holiday is the eating of cheesecake. Now I’ve got nothing against cheesecake but the fact remains that its connection with Shavuot remains highly tenuous. For example, one common reason put forward is that with the giving of the Torah, the Jews became obligated to observe the kosher laws. As the Torah was given on Shabbat, no cattle could be slaughtered nor could utensils be koshered, and thus on that day they ate dairy.

Sheer nonsense. Why not stress eating a meat-free meal rather than a dairy one? Besides, their dairy products would likewise have been not kosher since it would have contained rennet. And the utensils used in the process of making the cheese would have definitely not been kosher, since they were the same utensils used for their meat production and consumption.

Another reason given is that in Temple-times the offering on Shavuot consisted of two loaves of bread – to commemorate that we eat two consecutive distinguishable meals. Again, a long bow to our treasured cheesecake. Last I checked, a cheesecake does not constitute a meal. A tofu stir-fry on the other hand certainly does.

My favourite reason given for eating cheesecake on Shavuot is that the Hebrew word for milk is chalav, and when the numerical values of each of the Hebrew letters in the word chalav are added together: 8 + 30 + 2 = 40.  And forty is the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai when receiving the Torah. How very neat! How very intellectually numbing. I reckon there is more substance to the theory that it was a desperate attempt on the part of the dairy farmers to remain a viable industry. Apparently, long before Coles and Woollies strangled the milk producers, they were already struggling. Dairy on Shavuot was their innovation.

Now, I am certainly not proposing the abolition of the long weekend nor the elimination of cheesecake from our Shavuot celebrations. When a practice only enhances people’s lives, then it need not have any basis other than Tevye’s great bellowing wisdom that it is Tradition!  Given the long history of the Pies vs Demons and cheesecakes that remind us of heaven, God forbid we do anything to change. But beyond cheesecakes, Shavuot is traditionally the time we received the Ten Commandments. There is obviously much to say about arguably the most famous few paragraphs in world history, but for now I’d like to make just two points.

The first point is in relation to the first three of the Ten Commandments; belief in the one God, the prohibition against making an image of God, and prohibition against taking God’s name in vain. Why is the belief in one God so important? Why is the Torah so obsessed against making an image of God? And what on earth does taking God’s name in vain even mean? I mean religious people seem to want to mention God in response to every question! Does that not constitute unnecessary usage, i.e. in vain? Is there really a difference between saying Hashem and any of the other names we call God?

The answer to all these questions lies in understanding what belief in one God entails. Rather than it meaning, as we are told by fundamentalists of all religions, that it is an exclusive idea, which is why they are so busy fighting with each other about the true God, God is in fact the most absolutely inclusive idea we can possibly imagine. Put simply, if God is everything including things that in our world are mutually exclusive, then the idea of God must be the most abstract, undefined, and therefore inclusive concept.

Now we can understand why the Torah is so bothered about creating an image of God. An image is simply a crude definition of God. It follows that as soon as you have an image of what God is, it excludes everything else. Since the whole point of belief in one God is to include rather than exclude, the making of an image of God is an absolute affront.

In this light we can also appreciate the notion of taking God’s name in vain. It does not refer to swearing or to using any of God’s names which would seem quite petty but rather to a person who behaves inhumanely in the name of God. When ISIS behead the poor victims evoking Allah, that is the ultimate sacrilegious act. But the examples don’t have to be so extreme. There are unfortunately enough examples in our own religion where God is used to justify all sorts of inhumane treatment of others.The great irony of course is that the proponents of  fundamentalism, who are supposedly so worried about the truth and honour of God, are the very ones defiling it.

The second point I’d like to make is with regard to the tenth commandment: You shall not covet. Admittedly we must first get over the use of language implying that a neighbour’s wife is his property –  like his house, his servants, his ox and (most unfortunate term in this context) his ass!

The idea I do want to highlight, however, is the great relevance such a concept of ” You shall not covet” has to our modern society. Instead of our present world where the marketing industry is given free reign to insidiously, subliminally and  incessantly convince us to want things that are unnecessary (and so often bad for us) for our society, and our environment, were we to internalise just this one little idea, how our world would be transformed! And Happiness perhaps even a little attainable.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Shneur