Why was Shevuot, the third festival of the Jewish year, observed this year on Sunday, May 16th, a harbinger of life and death, for our people in Biblical times?
In modern times, Shevuot is a time of rejoicing, of feasting, of Bible study, and Jewish study. It celebrates the time, that according to legend, the Torah was given to our people on Mount Sinai to take to the world. It’s a time when Jews delight in dairy dishes. (The Torah says that Torah is as milk to nourish the soul of the Jewish People.) The image of milk and honey for Torah is also used. On Shevuot, cheesecake is a favorite desert. Cheese Blinzes are often served in the morning before and after services.
In modern Israel, Shevuot is a nature celebration. Many in our country and in Israel bring flowers and greens into their homes. The decorations meant to connect us to God’s flow of seasons. Special family dinners and flowers obscure the more serious intent and reality, the life and death struggle marked by the Festival in the Ancient world.
There were similarities to this time of COVID-19 and Shevuot, the feast of weeks.
It was a time when it shall be determined, who shall live and who shall die.
In Ancient Israel more than 50% of the annual diet was composed of grain: barley and wheat. Both grains were planted in the end of fall. Barley can withstand and flourish in the harsher weather and was harvested first. Portions of the emerging barley harvest were brought to the Temple as an offering every day between Passover and Shevuot, called the Omer. After seven weeks of counting, the 50th day was called Shevuot (weeks).
Shevuot celebrated the wheat harvest (the flour of which was the preponderant food. )
If the harvest was good, people would live; if not, many would die.
Shevuot was meant to celebrate a successful wheat harvest. During the counting of the Omer, there was sharp anxiety, as in the time of COVID. Who will life and who will die? So the feast of weeks was a time of giving thanks to God for another year. For avoiding starvation.
Just as we, this Shevuot, can use the opportunity for the vaccines, the health care workers, the scientists, our government for distributing the medication to the rich and poor.
On Shevuot, the Israelites could see the year ahead.
They awaited the grape, fig and olive harvests ahead.
We, in our time, are not finished with the plague.
Yet, we can offer our grateful thanks for being brought in safety to this time and place.
We can remember the sharp anxiety.
We must, even now, be careful to exercise caution.
But with food and flowers and prayer, we can, please God, begin to harvest hope.
I learned from my daughter, Rabbi Shinder of Congregation Beth Shalom of Florida, NY, that Congregation Beth El (formerly known as Agudas Achim) of Port Jervis, NY, was forced to cease operations. Further, I learned that the congregation was not selling their Torahs, but rather they were placing them with congregations who met certain standards. The gifts of Torahs are a value of between $20,000.00 and $40,000.00. But of most importance, it is a great mitzvah to provide a home for Torahs from congregations that have sadly been forced to close. Moreover, since some of our oldest Sefer Torahs are pasool, and need expensive repair before being read at a service. The Port Jervis Torah will allow us to set Torahs at different readings for the many High Holiday Torah services, and all can be wound in advance.
This is the letter that I wrote to the President of Temple Beth El:
It was good speaking with you today. I am sorry that demographics have made it necessary for the Port Jervis congregation to cease operation. With the sadness, I am certain that there have been decades and decades of powerful memories, and God connections that will continue to be cherished by your members through time.
As you are in the process of finding new homes for your Sefer Torahs, on behalf of Congregation Agudas Achim of Livingston Manor, NY, I am officially requesting for us to receive a Torah to be housed in our Aron Kodesh, our holy ark. Our 100+ year old congregation continues to serve Jews throughout Sullivan County. One may see more about the congregation, and our historic synagogue, through our website.
We would be honored to give a home and to use at services, one of your sacred Torahs.
Rabbi Fredric S. Pomerantz
Congregation Agudas Achim
Yesterday, I received an email from Julius Greenberg, the President of Beth El, saying that the Board of Trustees had approved the gift of a Torah to our congregation. Alan and Karen Blocker, longtime members, volunteered to drive down to pick up the Sefer. As of this writing, the Torah is already in our Aron Kodesh, amongst our other treasured Torahs. We will have a ceremony of rededication for the scroll, as it will add to the sacredness of our ark. We shall have three bar mitzvah ceremonies this summer, as we continue to be a house of Torah. The congregants of Temple Beth El should feel comforted by the care that we will give to their beloved Torah.
Shevuot was the time in our Tradition when Torah was given at Mt. Sinai. How fitting for us to receive a new Torah in this festive season. Our thanks to Sharon Ball, past president of Congregation Beth Shalom, and to Rabbi Shinder, for aiding us in our newest acquisition.
Rabbi Fred Pomerantz