In 1995, my dear friend Sally took her husband and young children to Israel for a guided tour. I had already been living here for a few months and she was fascinated by my ‘conversion’ from secular-to-Orthodox Judaism as well the sudden aliyah to Jerusalem. Friends since childhood, we were an odd couple; I drank the Mitzvah Kool-Aid and held Torah observance front and center of our respective existence. Conversely, Sally is assimilated and content.
Since I was very busy helping my own family adjust to our new lives during her visit, I couldn’t accompany her and the guide and, in the end, the tour was dry, picturesque and had little impact. “It seemed a lot like Greece,” said Sally. I felt sad that my friend’s trip was lusterless. She is passionate. Her tour guide was not.
I always revisit this story before Shavuot, the holiday where Bnei Yisroel receives the Torah, the same Torah that is not history book but, rather, a blueprint for life. Shavuot provides a natural segue in the calendar as we mature as a nation, ‘rising’ from the events that led and culminated in Passover. We were clueless and uninitiated in Egypt which necessitated the emergence of a Moses which led to ten plagues that were followed by an exodus that bestowed upon us a system of laws and conduct which were honed during the subsequent forty year sojourn in the desert.
Shavuot is the culmination of this period and comes forty-nine days after the seder. Finally we can celebrate our worthiness to be called refined and redemption-worthy. Why? Because during our 400 year imprisonment, we had assimilated so completely that we were on the brink of extinction. Redemption came in the blink of an eye but not before 80% of our nation was destroyed. Reborn spiritually, we await Shavuot as a child awaits his birthday or summer vacation or other joyous event. Our transformation in the desert was radical and Shavuot allows us to again embrace the source of our holiness.
The Midrash (commentary on the Written Torah) tells us that the Jewish people slept the entire night before the giving of the Torah. One viewpoint opines that when God discovered the people asleep, He asked, “Why did I arrive and no one was there? I called and nobody answered.”
The Ten Commandments brought order into a subjectively chaotic universe. Several of them comprise the Noahide Laws and it is comforting to share earth space with many non-Jews who embrace the same values and G-d-centeredness that has kept the Jewish people to this day.
For the record, my friendship with Sally is still strong and I have become more proactive with the itineraries of visiting friends. Because the ordinariness of her only visit to the Jewish homeland will forever remain a ‘blah’ page in her book of travel adventures.
Enjoying a communal forty-winks at the most pivotal moment in Jewish history certainly merits G-d’s displeasure. There is a saying (attributed to many) that goes, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Shavuot offers us an opportunity, again, to re-learn, re-humble, re-connect and re-soar as we grasp with both hands that which is our legacy and birthright.
If only Sally’s guide had been awake when the Heaven’s thundered.
NEW YORK NATIVE ANDREA SIMANTOV has lived in Jerusalem since 1995. She writes for several publications, appears regularly on Israel National Radio and owns an image consulting firm for women.