Rabbinic Reflections: You are unprepared

You are not ready. You will not be ready. You cannot get ready. The many rituals and traditions that are meant to help us prepare for the Jewish pilgrimage festival of Shavuot, the holiday celebrating both the first fruits of the summer harvest and the receiving of Torah at Mt. Sinai, convey an important message. We are never really prepared to receive the Torah.

The days from Passover to receiving the Torah.

The theophany at Sinai is too big, too momentous an event. Even in Exodus, the Israelites spend three days washing, purifying, and otherwise trying to prepare only to cry out to Moses to make it stop once they hear the beginning of the Ten Commandments. Rabbinic tradition teaches that every Jewish soul throughout all time was present at that moment. All Jews in all time then were unprepared. Personally, my theology extends the historical event of Moses on Mt. Sinai to eternity; God’s infinite nature means that the Ten Commandments continue to resound each and every day. How can we possibly prepare ourselves if it was so hard then and no less miraculous now?

We do try to prepare. From the night of the second Passover seder, we begin counting day by day, week by week (Shavuot literally translates into “weeks”) a series of seven weeks. We are like the Jewish bride circling her groom seven times before entering the chuppah, the wedding canopy. This counting was once accompanied by bringing a sheaf of barley grain daily, an omer, from which we get the name for this period as the counting of the omer. The message is clear: get ready!

Related to the omer is a tradition of observing mourning rituals for some or all of this period in remembrance of Rabbi Akiva’s students who were persecuted by the Romans. We reduce our joy, refrain from music and parties, wait to have weddings, and generally subdue our experiences. We are focused on the seriousness of Torah learning, as represented by Rabbi Akiva’s students, and it should help us be ready for Shavuot.

The night Shavuot begins has its own special ritual: the tikkun leil Shavuot, a night of learning meant to repair our imperfections before the dawn when we mark receiving the Torah. Many people studying all night long, literally learning until the sun comes up. This study is meant to purify our minds, hearts, and souls to be focused on being prepared to stand again at Mt. Sinai.

When the morning comes, though, no counting, no mourning, and no study can truly prepare us to receive the Torah. We are unprepared. Perhaps we are tired, perhaps we are joyless, perhaps we lost count. Regardless, we stand as if we are ready. We are like hosts welcoming guests whom we know will bring a gift, a bottle of wine, or flowers to our party. We do take the item, we might even fuss over it, and yet we usually treat it as a formality.

How do we accept a gift like the Torah as more than a token and more than a given? We have to acknowledge that we cannot know what it means to get the Torah. We cannot receive a relationship with God. We can only admit that we are unprepared for God’s Presence. If you want to experience revelation at Mt. Sinai this year, try going in with this idea in mind: you are unprepared. Then, see what you receive.

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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