The problem with Shavuot is that there isn’t enough to do. If it were Pesach we’d be rushing around cleaning cupboards and trying to bake decent cakes with matzah meal; if it were Succot we’d be constructing our Succah. But for Shavuot the preparation is of a different order; it calls less for outer, and more for inner, work.
Actually, that isn’t entirely true. It’s the custom to decorate the synagogue with flowers to celebrate the marriage between God and Israel solemnised through the contract of Torah. Yesterday for the first time in my life I met several groups of Hasidim in a garden centre. ‘Buying for the Shul?’ I asked. ‘Of course’, they replied, and we had a short discussion on the merits of various plants. [They bought conifers and begonias; dull, if you ask me. I went for anemones, jasmine and an apple tree: you’ll see them, quotations attached, tomorrow.] It’s also traditional to bake cheesecake; some say this is because the milk went sour from all the thunder and lightning when the Children of Israel were encamped around Mount Sinai. I prefer the explanation that milk foods represent life and that we avoid meat on this festival to celebrate the fact that the Torah is a teaching of life.
But the real preparation for Shavuot is within. Even the beautiful mystical practice, now widespread, of studying Torah all night is not only to express our love of learning, but to prepare ourselves so that at dawn we can hear the voice of God which calls to us from Sinai.
But is there still such a voice? Does God speak anymore today? Or did that only happen once, back then? Or was it always a fiction, even if an admittedly useful one to impose morality on the world? Has Darwin robbed us forever of our nice, consoling God?
To the mystic, to the lover of the world, these constitute no answers. I’ve met many such people, who hear God speak. They are not hermits, or lunatics, or dogmatists with closed minds. They may use different words to express it, but these are some of the things I hear them say:
- I hear God in the sheer beauty of life. I feel a presence in wild and open places, a being and a calling, which transcends our individual existence.
- I’ve sensed God within my despair. I kept hearing an inner voice saying, ‘What’s the point?’ I felt close to wanting to die. Then I realised that the question was also the answer. The point was that I had been given life and had to use it well. In that moment I no longer felt alone.
- I find God in the human heart. I suppose that’s why I do the work I do in this hospital. I feel a great tenderness at the heart of everything, calling out to be cared for. I don’t know if I’d call it God, but something greater than us is there in all that love and need.
Such people are my teachers and my guides. I know that they are all around me, Jews and non-Jews, young and old. When I miss them it’s because I’ve been too preoccupied to listen. For the voice is always there saying, in countless different ways, ‘I am the Lord your God’ and commanding us to serve.