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Containers of God's Glory

Shavuot means “weeks” and refers to the 7 weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, the time in which we count the omer. This is indeed how the Torah refers to this holy day. In Exodus and Deuteronomy it is called “Chag Shavuot” or “Chag ha-Shavuot”; the Feast of Weeks. Exodus also refers to this day as Chag ha-Katzir, the Feast of the Harvest. This refers to the wheat harvest which was brought in during this time. The day after Pesach was the time to bring an offering of the firstfruits of barley to the Temple, Shavuot was the time to bring in the firstfruits of wheat offerings. It is for this reason that the Torah in the Book of Numbers also calls this day Yom ha-Bikkurim; the Day of Firstfruits.

There are other names given to this day in post-Biblical sources. Josephus, a first century Jewish historian, refers to it as Yom Ha-Chamishim, the Fiftieth Day. This is because Shavuot always fell on the fiftieth day of the Counting of the Omer. It is also where we get the name Pentecost, which comes from the Greek meaning fiftieth. Philo, a first century Egyptian-Jewish philosopher, refers to it as the Festival of Baskets, referring to the baskets that the firstfruits were delivered in.

Interestingly enough the Talmud uses none of these terms. It refers to this holy day as “Atzeret”. This is quite puzzling. We are all familiar with Shemini Atzeret, the extra day of observance at the end of the seven-day observance of Sukkot. This means literally the Eighth Day of Assembly. So why does the Talmud use this word in reference to Shavuot?

A number of reasons are given by various rabbis over the centuries. One rationale is that it is indeed a day of assembly like Shemini Atzeret. By tradition Shavuot is the day on which we gathered together at Mount Sinai and received the Torah. In fact Deuteronomy 18:16 refers to the reception of the Torah as Yom Ha-Kahal. Kahal means assembly or congregation. This is why our synagogue’s Hebrew name is Kehilat Zera Avraham, the Congregation of Zera Avraham.

But another sage points out that Atzeret can also mean “stop”. (Stop signs in Israel today say Atzor). He asserts that Atzeret refers to the day upon which we stop counting the Omer. In this line of thought, just as Shemini Atzeret is the grand finale of Sukkot, Shavuot is really the end of the season begun by Pesach. Rabbinic literature indeed does sometimes refer to Shavuot as the Atzeret of Pesach.

Rabbi Levi Yitzak of Berditchev has a different approach to this name and it is what I would like to focus on today. He was a major leader within the Chassidic movement in Poland. He points out that Atzeret can not only mean assemble and stop but it can also mean “to contain”. He says that when the people were witnessing the theophany at Sinai they were filled with love and awe of Hashem. Caught up in ecstasy they say the famous words “na-a-seh ve-nish-ma”, we will do and hear! Rabbi Levi states that they needed a way to contain their spiritual experience and enthusiasm. When a person is caught up in an inspirational experience of God they seek to contain it through performing a mitzvah. God recognized this and gave them the mitzvah of not coming onto or touching the mountain. Performing a commandment is an act of response to God and preserves the experience. Rabbi Levi writes, “The commandment performed by the person who had ‎experienced an overwhelming religious impetus may then be seen ‎as a vessel within which the awakening love for God reposes.” God practices tzim-tzum and contracts Himself and inhabits the mitzvah!

This is a beautiful image. Our mitzvot are containers of Hashem’s glory! It is an opposite, but equally inspiring, to the Chassidic notion that practicing mitzvot releases sparks of holiness into the world. Here we are bringing His glory into these beautiful boxes created by our love and devotion to Him.

We not only have the containers that we create from our mitzvot, but also the many containers of our tradition. Our siddur is a container of Hashem’s glory, built by our people over the centuries. The same with the Talmud and other significant texts. Our holy days, like Shabbat and Shavuot, are also boxes of His glory, that we open week after week and year after year and savor its sweetness. The letters of the Torah itself are referred to as black fire written on white fire. The Torah is a container of God’s glory and wisdom, His revelation to us.

On a personal level, we occasionally have radical God encounters in our lives. Moments when He seems particularly close, or speaks to us in an undeniable way. Like our People at Sinai, we find ourselves suddenly flooded with love and awe of Hashem. We need to find containers for these experiences so that they can be preserved and occasionally opened and re-savored. This could take the form of a mitzvah, but it could take other forms. It might be a poem or a piece of art that we create in response. It could be something that we buy to remind us. Either of these can be revisited such that we are inspired anew. It could simply be recorded in a journal. One example of this is Zora buying a piece of art with a gift from the congregation in honor of her conversion. She can look upon this, enjoy it, and draw newfound strength and inspiration from it, reliving the glory of that impactful watershed moment of her life. Or it could be a mental image or symbol that we hold on to. For example, Julie had a radical encounter years ago with the text of Zechariah the tax collector’s encounter with Yeshua while in the sycamore tree. She suddenly realized, in a moment of revelation, that she is a sycamore tree, called to give life to those around her.

Many of us at CZA have reported God encounters while on prayer retreat, at summer camp, or during a worship service. If we don’t find containers for these moments, we can lose them forever. They are valuable and life-giving, something that we can pull out and feed upon year after year. They are a significant part of our life’s journey towards God.

Shavuot is indeed the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of First Fruits, the Feast of Assembly, and the Feast of Stopping. It is a reminder for us to stop and savor the fruits of our times of radical encounters with Hashem at our own Mount Sinai’s. It is a time to remember that we need to assemble together and strengthen one another with our own stories of them. It is also a reminder that we can collectively encounter Hashem in our liturgy, in Scripture, and in acts of public worship as a congregation of Jews devoted to Him and His Messiah.

May we experience our texts and liturgies as containers of God’s glory. Beautiful boxes that we can open and sample the goodness of our collective experience of Hashem’s love.

May we build baskets to contain the fruits of our encounters with the Living God.

May we frequently open them and savor their fragrance and make them offerings of devotion to Him.

And thereby be strengthened in devotion and service to Him, as we move through the “weeks” of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom!

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