By LTC Hal Miller, USN, AGR Ret.
With the approach of the holiday of Shavuot, it seems a good time to address some of the questions that may perhaps be burning in people’s minds, such as how do I tell my chain of command that I need a couple days off for this, how do I explain to my compatriots why I am doing this now even though I never did it before, and what exactly do I need to do. Before we get into those, it makes sense to understand something about the holiday itself and why it is so important that serving Jewish Americans do their best to observe it.
– Why is Shavuot important?
I often hear, “I’ve never even heard of it”, from both Jews and non-Jews. Certainly, Shavuot gets a bum rap when it comes to publicity. Nearly everyone knows of Pesach (Passover) and a large percentage of the population has some idea what Sukkot is. In the Torah, though, God commanded us to celebrate Shalosh Regalim, the Three Festivals, Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot, so on a scale of importance, this holiday is right up there with these others. On each of these three, Jews made a pilgrimage to Yerushalayim (Jerusalem). The Torah gives us specific dates for Pesach and for
Sukkot. Each of these holidays lasts for seven days (eight outside of the land of Israel), beginning and ending in special holiday status. Each has special “commandments of the day” associated with it.
Pesach comes in the month of spring and reminds us that God rescued us from the slavery in ancient Egypt (which is not related to modern-day Egypt except in location.) We are commanded to bring a lamb offering (during the times of the Temple), to eat matzah, and to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt for ourselves and our children, to make sure we know that we too are part of the Exodus, or we would still today have been slaves to the Pharaohs. Being in the spring, it is tied to life cycles of rebirth as the Jewish people became a nation, although we did
not understand our unifying purpose yet.
Sukkot comes in the fall as a reminder to thank God for the abundant harvest. On Sukkot we are commanded to gather the four species (palm, myrtle, and willow of the lulav, together with the
etrog), and to live in temporary huts to remind us of the transient status of our lives. It also commemorates the dependence on God while the children of Israel wandered through the desert after
But Shavuot does not have a specified date, rather we are told to count fifty days from Pesach and celebrate one day (two outside of the land of Israel). Shavuot does not have the same kinds of
commandments of the day, nor does the Torah give us the reason for the holiday. In other words, no glory. What, then, do we tell our supervisors, what do we tell our compadres, and for that matter, what do we tell ourselves?
There are numerous special days in the course of the year, some joyous, some melancholy, some full of awe. These Three Festivals are at the forefront, set aside by the Torah especially as times of joy. Their rules are similar to Shabbat regarding work, etc. We set aside our worldly secular life and live in the spiritual one for a bit, recognizing why we exist in the first place, both as a people and as individual Jews. They give us purpose and a sense of belonging, in addition to the fact that they were commanded to us by our Creator. The questions of date and of reason for the holiday
seem to coincide. The Torah does not tell us what date God met the people on Mt. Sinai, but gives us enough information to calculate it as being fifty days after the departure from Egypt. Since that departure coincides with the beginning of Pesach, we see that Shavuot happens to fall exactly on the same day that God gave us the Torah, the 6th of the Hebrew month of Sivan. It is inescapable that some part of the reason for Shavuot must be tied to God’s revealing Himself to the entire nation and giving us the Torah. Shavuot, then, is a commemoration of our meeting God face to face, of our accepting the Torah, and of our becoming not only a nation, but His nation. In the thousands of years since, nations have come and gone, for better or for worse. Only the children of Israel remain, still the people of God. All other religions were started by one person going to his people and saying, “God talked to me” or some such. Only once in all of history has God
appeared to each and every individual of an entire nation, simultaneously, and spoken to all of them together. Simply put, Shavuot proves that God exists. It commemorates that which makes us Jews.
An additional reason often given for Shavuot is a tie to the agricultural world from which we stem. The day after Pesach is the beginning of the harvest. At that point, the only primary crop ready is barley, but fifty days later, the main wheat crop is ripe. Shavuot, then, is also a celebration of the abundance of another seasonal cycle, for which we thank God.
– How do we observe the holiday?
There is an adage supposedly explaining the story of Jewish holidays that reads, “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.” While that might be applied to Pesach, Purim, and Chanukah, it doesn’t fit well for Shavuot. So, what does? The days before Pesach are filled with preparations, cleaning out all the leavened food (chametz), which involves a thorough housecleaning and which led directly to the longstanding American tradition of “spring housecleaning”. The night of Pesach we have a huge meal in the middle of a service, reading the story of the Exodus. For a week, we eat matzah
instead of bread. During the days leading up to Sukkot, we build huts in our yards, then for a week we live in those huts. We “take” the four species (lulav and etrog). It is clear and obvious for each holiday what we are doing. For Shavuot there is nothing quite so clear and obvious. Certainly, like the other two festivals and Shabbat, we avoid doing work or other weekday mundane “stuff”, and instead live with joy.
In the days of the Temple, there were special sacrifices to be brought, including the Two Loaves, two breads made of leavened dough (one of the only instances where bread was brought to the Altar that was not unleavened). But today we don’t do any of that. Most of us are not involved in agriculture, so we aren’t harvesting barley or wheat. So, what do we do?
There are common customs, such as eating a dairy meal (most people eat a meat meal as a celebration for Shabbat and for the other holidays). A very common dish at a Shavuot meal is cheesecake! Another custom involves decorating our homes (in advance) with tree branches or other greenery to commemorate the rebirth of the world when the children of Israel accepted the Torah, the whole purpose of Creation. They said, “We will do, and we will hear”, which shows belief in God by accepting His commandments on faith, and only afterward asking what they are so we can learn how to fulfill them. All the other nations demanded to know what those commandments were first, and then rejected what they did not like.
But there are some rabbinic enactments as well that today have the force of Jewish law. On this festival, we read the Book of Ruth. Beginning the day after Pesach begins, the period where the Torah commanded that we count fifty days, the rabbis gave us rules about how to count the “omer” up until Shavuot. The night before God’s revelation at Mt. Sinai, everyone in the nation went to get a good night’s sleep — and overslept. We kept God waiting to give us the Torah! So today, we stay up all night (each according to their ability) studying Torah, leading into the holiday. We light candles, drink a cup of wine, and say blessings very similar to what we do on Shabbat and the other festivals. We spend time with family and friends, and in particular we try to learn more about becoming a better person.
– How do I tell people what I’m doing?
This is the American military, not that of Czarist Russia of 150 years ago. It isn’t even the military it was when I first joined the Navy, when an Air Force officer was cashiered for wearing his kippah in uniform. Today, if at all possible (understanding that at times it is not), commanders will grant leniencies to people to observe religious functions. Every command is likely to have a procedure in place for approving this, whether it involves time off, or special foods. Letting your superiors know inadvance that you are Jewish and wish to participate in the observance of Shavuot should not be difficult.
If there is a problem, most facilities have or have access to chaplains in uniform, all of whom specialize in assisting servicemembers with this kind of issue. A response that might be useful when
someone asks questions is, “In order for me to properly and fully serve my country, I need to also serve my God.” Remember always that you are looked upon as an example, and your every action is weighed as being by one of the “chosen people”.
More difficult are the questions people may ask such as, why am I doing this now when I’ve never done it before, why this holiday and not others, or, can you bend some of the rules. When someone is growing in religious understanding and wishes to increase religious observance, it is common to feel embarrassed, worrying about what it looks like to others. The key to handling this is the same as learning to speak in public. Remember that those around you are not criticizing you, they’re curious about what you’re doing. Have you ever seen someone make a mistake when speaking? Your reaction is to ignore the mistake and try to understand what they really intended. Others have the same view of you, they probably don’t even notice when you make a mistake like that, they just want to know what you’re up to. Many people, more so nowadays than in earlier points in my career, are interested in increasing their own observance and will be all but envious of you that you are actually acting on what they were merely thinking about. There is nothing embarrassing about trying to do right things. If you are asked the “why now and not before” question, a
simple answer of “I am learning and increasing my observance” is completely sufficient.
The obvious answer to the “why this holiday and not others” is for you to reach a point where you will address all three festivals, plus Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur within your
command. In the mean time, the same “I am learning” answer will satisfy the questioner. The children of Israel were designated by God at this time of year, to be the good examples of what
people are supposed to be. Others always closely watch Jews. When we do wrong, they point at us and use us as an excuse to violate ethical rules themselves. When we grow, publicly, we are making the strongest statement about right and wrong, showing them by example that they also could learn and become better people.
Bending rules is a complicated subject, and should only be attempted after consulting a local rabbi well versed in Jewish law. There is a basic Jewish concept life is not only exempt from following the commandments, but is actually directed not to follow any that could possibly conflict. As a servicemember, you are involved in a way similar to a doctor with the preservation of life. Some rules can be bent in some situations, but you need to check first. Where bending rules is authorized, keep all that you are able to and limit the bending to just what is necessary. People who ask you about this subject will understand such an explanation. Tell them that the decision on when to bend is not in your hands.
– What if I am not able to take the time off?
In addition to the concept of preservation of life, there is one that recognizes there are times when, despite our best efforts and intentions, we are unable to do some specific commandment. If it is
merely an “I don’t feel like it” situation, this concept does not apply, but if you have the duty, you are in a combat zone, or your supervisors just refuse to allow you the opportunity, you will not be held accountable in the heavenly court. When I wanted to light Chanukah candles on my ship, I learned that flames were not allowed at all, so I came up with an electric menorah. It did not serve for the mitzvah itself, but acted as a reminder.
So what to do instead for Shavuot? In many cases, if we intend to do a mitzvah, we can be credited as though we actually accomplished it. We are required to make every effort, but if either the mitzvah is no longer required (someone else took care of it) or we are just simply not in a position to do it, if we try we still get the credit. It takes a real intent, though, not with “fingers crossed” trying to slide around the rules.
If you are, for whatever reason, unable to dedicate the days to Shavuot, try to at least do the following:
- Just before dark on the evening leading into
Shavuot, light a pair of candles (if you can), then say
the blessings, including over wine or grape juice
- Spend a moment recognizing your Creator and
what He has done for us
- Eat a bit of cheesecake!
- Recognize that God
commanded this holiday and you are trying to
follow His commandments.
- Take off whatever time you can, do some reading
and thinking about what you can do to improve
Chaplains at or near most facilities will have information on additional steps you can take, materials to help, and are always available to assist in increasing your access to and understanding of this and all other holidays.
Chag Sameach (joyous holiday)!
Rabbi Hal Miller served as a US Navy gunnery officer in the Gulf of Tonkin during the fall of Saigon, then later spent decades as an Air National Guard communications and logistics officer, retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel.
This article was originally published in the Shavuot 5781 issue of the Jewish-American Warrior.