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On Shavuot

This week sees the end of the counting of the Omer and the celebration of the festival of Shavuot. All at once we celebrate the new harvest, and should decorate our homes and shuls with flowers and greenery. And at the same time we commemorate the giving of the Torah by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.

A couple of weeks ago, our UHC Torah club studied the times of the biblical prophet Jeremiah. And we learnt how his worldview was formed under the reign of King Josiah, one of the last kings before the first temple was destroyed and the Jews were sent into exile in Babylon.

The remarkable thing about King Josiah, as chronicled in 2 Kings 22, is that under his rule, the Torah was discovered. Thanks to his decision to spend money renovating the Temple, which had been long neglected by several of his royal forebears, his high priest, Hilkiah, made the astonishing announcement: Sefer Hatorah matzati B’veit adonai - a Sefer Torah I’ve found in God’s house.

King Josiah then had his scribe read the Torah to him, and his response was to tear his clothes. Why? Because he understood the transgressions of the law that had been made by the Israelites and the Torah that had been forgotten. And it was a female prophetess, Huldah, who confirmed that yes, a great destruction would come, but because of King Josiah’s reaction, because he had rent his clothes and wept, he personally would escape the punishment and live out a peaceful existence. And so subsequently the First Temple was only destroyed several years after King Josiah had passed away.

At Chanukah in the traditional version of the Al Hanissim Prayer, inserted in the Amida, we make mention of the wicked Greeks, who made us forget our Torah. But prior to the discovery of the Torah in the time of King Josiah, we have no easy enemy to blame, no one really except ourselves.

As good Jews, our role is to rediscover Torah, and not to let it be forgotten. Every bar or bat mitzvah who learns a portion is a small step in the right direction. And their learning is an act not of discovery but of rediscovery, for the text is always already known to us. There’s a story that the angels teach each baby the entire Torah along with all the secrets of the universe. Then just before they are born, an angel puts its finger right below the baby’s nose and whispers to the child: shh...don’t tell, and then the baby forgets.

This Shavuot we will celebrate three bar mitzvahs of adults in the UHC who have taken it upon themselves to rediscover the Torah. They are living proof that we should spend our lives paying attention to the world around us and to everything that happens in it, to try to remember all the things that since the womb have been forgotten. The Torah is there for us all to uncover and rediscover, our tree of life to cling to in times of trial, both to buoy us in times of despair and to ground us at moments of elation.

As you eat your cheesecake this Shavuot, consider how you can commit yourself to the Torah this coming year. The Torah is said to have seventy faces, seventy facets, each word with seventy ways to explain its meaning. This year why not commit to one - whether it’s reading Torah commentaries, learning to translate the Torah’s Hebrew for yourself, even writing your own dvar Torah, one week or every week. And of course, as we wish everyone a chag sameach and Sam, Simon and Jeremy a hearty mazel tov, maybe their efforts and enthusiasm will encourage some more of you to commit to your own adult bar or bat mitzvah this coming year. Chag sameach!

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