Here it is in June, and there’s no more snow this year, for which I am grateful. But now it is time to cut the lawn, garden and enjoy the outdoors. I am a bit sick of the rain, but I know we need it.
The Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot literally translates as “Weeks”), occurred on May 20-21 this year. Shavuot marks the beginning of summer, and we thank God for the fruits of the earth that sustain our bodies, and for God’s Teaching, the Torah, that sustains our lives and souls.
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 ancient times, as in many parts of the world today, people depended on that harvest to ensure food would be available for them to eat. Failure of the harvest would result in massive starvation and disruption. So a celebration of this first harvest, and thanks to God for the bounty, was part of their normal rhythm of life and faith.
On Shavuot, the Book of Ruth is read, because of its description of the barley harvest.
Did you know that Ruth is considered the first convert to Judaism? I always love the story of Ruth because I am a convert to Judaism. Ruth said to Naomi: “Your people will be my people, your God my God.”
Ruth was a poor woman who lost her husband at a very young age. Yet she picked herself up and decided to follow her mother-in-law, Naomi, and join Naomi’s people and faith. That took a lot of courage.
As a convert, I know it is hard to leave the faith and community in which one was raised and to embrace a new faith and community. Many people remain comfortable in the faith tradition in which they were born and raised , but some people are driven to explore other faith paths and other ways of seeking the divine.
We are so lucky in this country to be free to make those explorations, to question our faith of origin and to choose to convert to a new faith. Because we have religious freedom, we are obliged to make sure that everyone in this country is free to practice one’s own faith tradition.
Last month I went to the annual Commonwealth Interfaith Service in Harrisburg. I always enjoy those services because I get to hear Muslim prayers, Hindu Prayers, Bahai prayers, Sikh prayers, Buddhist chants and Christian songs, along with Jewish prayers.
I am grateful that this part of Pennsylvania has a very active and engaged interfaith movement. I always enjoy learning about my neighbors and their faiths. There is so much beauty in all faiths, and it is a blessing that we get together periodically to work together for peace and justice in our community.
As the Hebrew song says “How good it is and how lovely, that brothers dwell together in unity.”
As summer approaches, it is important for us to focus on our gratitude for the blessings we have in this country and in our community. We do not face the risk of wholesale starvation every spring and fears of a poor harvest. And we live in a country that is founded on the premise that there is no official religion and that the government cannot dictate religious beliefs and practices.
Let us join hands together with our neighbors to promote these freedoms for all to enjoy.
Emily Burt-Hedrick is the President of the Congregation Beth Tikvah.
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