Pesach to Shavuot – milestones and memories

The fifty days between Pesach and Shavuot contain a number of commemorations that range from the most ancient to the most modern of our people’s history.   Beginning with the birth of our nation and our peoplehood with the exodus from Egypt, the period ends with the birth of our covenant relationship with God as a people at Mount Sinai.

In between, the fifty days of the Omer are days of semi mourning for a reason we are never quite clear about. Some say it is in memory of the oppression of Jews under the Romans, and the failure of the revolts against them; Others that 24 thousand students of Rabbi Akiva died in that period of a plague.  One the thirty third day we have Lag B’Omer  – (Lamed Gimel = 33) which provided a brief change in fortunes for the beleaguered Jews of the time. 

Less than a week after the end of Pesach, when we commemorate the miraculous deliverance of the Israelites at the Red Sea on the seventh day of the festival, we remember a period when deliverance did not come.   The abortive uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto, and all the murdered victims of the Holocaust are recalled on Yom ha Shoah ve’ha’Gevurah – the day for remembering the holocaust and the heroism.

 A week later, and more of our dead are remembered on Yom ha Zikaron – the day of memorial for those who gave their lives for the emerging State of Israel.  The day after that we mark Yom Ha’atzma’ut – Israel’s independence day, and this looks forward to the last week of the Omer period and its 44th day when Yom Yerushalayim commemorates the reunification of the city in the Six Day War.

So in fifty days we range over three thousand five hundred years of history.  We see victories and defeats, celebrations and mourning.  We observe Festivals that are at the core of our being as Jews, we see half festivals, not-really-festivals, and festivals in the making.  We see the dynamism and the forward thrust of Judaism which continues to create liturgy and ritual through which to express the most contemporary of events, and we look forward to messianic age promised in all our celebrations at this time But as we look forward, we also remember, are reminded, have memory of, recall, memorialise, commemorate, reminisce.   All these events have one thing in common, both past and future, the intertwined and symbiotic fate of the nation of Israel and people of Israel.

  We are all Israel, connected to each other, to our history, to our future and to our historic land. That connection and what happens to the land remains even today integral to what happens to the people.  We are a people, a tribe, links in a chain that never breaks.

The purpose of the exodus from Egypt was not simply freedom from slavery, it is freedom with a purpose – the purpose fulfilled at Shavuot, the unbreakable covenant we made with God, a covenant made for all generations, for those who were there at the time and those who were not there, for those born into the people and those who chose to join it.

The time between Pesach and Shavuot is a time that we count, a time we make count. We build up to the Sinaitic moment where God and people connect in a way never seen before nor since. We live and are nourished from that moment.

Shavuot is often overlooked, a festival without much ritual in the home, and all night study in the synagogue doesn’t appeal to everyone. But it marks a pivotal moment in our narrative and our formation.

Shavuot is celebrated this year (2022) on Saturday 4th in the evening till Sunday 5th in the evening (or Monday if you follow the diaspora tradition of a second day).

Find yourself a community of learners, a community of pray-ers and celebrate Shavuot, take yourself to Sinai and recommit to the eternal covenant. And then move forward into the rest of the Jewish year, away from Sinai and onto the journey that builds the people of Israel and binds us together as we go through the desert to the promised land.

15th Elul: Which God do you not believe in?

Elul 15 23rd August

A discussion among my colleagues – “What does one say when someone says to you “Rabbi, I don’t believe in God””

One answer – “I always ask them which God they don’t believe in”.

My teacher Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet used to bemoan the fact that so many Jews give up serious Jewish education at bar/bat mitzvah. They had, he used to say, a thirteen year old god. And as they grew and matured, their idea of God was frozen in time, adolescent and unbelievable.

Jews are the people of Israel – literally the ones who struggle with God. We are not required (despite the Maimonidean doctrine) to believe in God. Indeed earliest rabbinic Judaism was not so much interested in what people believed about divinity, but talked instead about shared narratives. Slightly later we have the extraordinary rabbinic midrash on the verse in Jeremiah (16:11) “They have forsaken Me and not kept my Torah”   – “If only they had forsaken Me but kept my Torah!” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 5-7th Century)

Rabbinic Judaism is far more interested in how people behave, in the keeping of mitzvot, in action rather than in belief.

Since the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai on the way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in their ancestral land, Jews are a people who are commanded – who are under a chiyyuv, and obligation – and whose live are traditionally framed by the observance of mitzvot.

Of course the idea of commandments does somewhere require there to be a commander, but while we may have an historic metzaveh in our texts, the doing of mitzvot is in and of itself integral to our religious life. So for example Rabbi David Polish wrote that “When a Jew performs one of the many life acts known as mitzvot to remind themselves of the moments of encounter, what was only episodic becomes epochal, what was only a moment in Jewish history becomes eternal in Jewish life”[i]  His examples of the lighting of shabbat candles or of sitting at a Pesach seder are some of the examples he gives of our connecting with Jews across the world and across time.  The meaning and purpose of mitzvah for him is in part a way of sharing history and experiences across Jewish people hood, something that strengthens us in the world, and that momentarily allows us to transcend the mundane into the spiritual. 

There are many rabbinic names and descriptors for God. There are ways of understanding God not as a noun but as a verb – we are not tied to a thirteen year old god, some kind of supernatural being to whom we have to speak in stilted and formalised language. My very favourite name for God is “haMakom” – literally “the place”. Not a geographical location but a space where things can happen.

Israel – Jews – are named for struggling with God. Struggling with the ideas, the ethical demands, the behaviours that are required of us to be in covenant with God. The struggle is ongoing. If you find it hard to believe in the God of your childhood, then it is up to you to search the texts and find God with whom you can have a dialogue.


[i] ” Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle, ed. Simeon J. Maslin [New York: CCAR Press, 1979]