The Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot literally translates as “weeks”), started this year on Thursday evening and runs through Saturday.
Shavuot is a holiday with two meanings. First, it is a day to celebrate the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mt. Sinai. Second, it is the festival to celebrate the grain harvest and the first summer fruits.
In ancient days, two loaves of bread, made from newly harvested grain, were brought to the Temple as a gift to God. Also the first fruits of the land — such as grapes, figs and honey — were brought to the Temple for God. In modern times, Jews usually observe Shavuot with overnight sessions studying the Torah, as well as special prayers during the daily services, the eating of special foods and gathering with family and friends.
But, like all our neighbors of any faith, right now we cannot gather with our friends and communities to celebrate due to the pandemic. Our synagogues are not holding in-person services right now, just like many churches and mosques and other places of worship.
Right now we are all in shock over how our lives have been turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic still continues; we continue to lose friends and family to the disease. Those who survive may have long-term health problems.
It is a difficult problem to determine how much and when to reopen the economy and how much we should continue to “social distance” ourselves. Many people cannot afford to be out of work and are facing hunger and potential homelessness as the result of loss of jobs due to the pandemic.
Some people have to go to work despite the fact that they are afraid that they will get the disease and pass it on to vulnerable family members. Some people are angry that they cannot go out to events and restaurants and be with people as usual, and are demanding that everything reopen right now, whether or not it is safe.
When I do go out on life-sustaining errands, such as grocery shopping, I continue to see people gathering in groups out in public without wearing masks. Seeing that scares me because it is important that all of us observe safety measures to protect each other’s health. As has been said on the radio and in social media many times: “My mask protects you; your mask protects me.”
Shavuot is our special celebration for the giving of the Torah. I have been reminded over and over again during this pandemic that the Torah demands the preservation of life as one of the most important commandments. One can break nearly every commandment (there are 613 of them in the Torah) if it is necessary to save a life. The Torah demands that we act to preserve life in this difficult time, so the Torah requires us to observe the public health orders, including social distancing and wearing masks.
A couple of weeks ago, I found on Facebook a post that I shared with friends, and that I wish to share with you all. It is a Blessing for The Mitzvah of Putting on a Mask, written by Rabbi Michael Knopf.
“Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu, Melech Ha-Olan, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu al shmirat ha-nefesh.”
“Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the world, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us to protect life.”
I think that this is a blessing that everyone, regardless of faith, can appreciate and use, as we go out in the world. The Torah demands that we take care of each other, because we are all God’s children. We need to make sure that everyone can remain safe in these difficult times. Stay safe, act safely, and stay well!
Emily Burt-Hedrick is the President of the Congregation Beth Tikvah.