22 May 2015

Shavuot 5775

Shavuot 5775

In 1851, Queen Victoria hosted an international exhibition to celebrate the contributions of over 40 nations. The emphasis was on natural resources— India showed the magnificent Koh-i-Noor diamond—and on the latest machinery—a Jacquard loom, daguerreotype photography, the prototype Colt Navy revolver, even a barometer that employed leeches.

Some years ago, the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ created an exhibition on the life of Jews, to teach people—particularly young people in schools—about the nation dispersed among the nations. It was decided the emphasis should not be primarily on Jewish scientists, or the creation of modern Israel since 1948. Instead the Board chose to chiefly celebrate the Jewish family and the Jewish community in the “Jewish Way of Life Exhibition.”

Visiting children learn the cycle of the week, the cycle of the year, and the cycle of life. They roll a printed sepher, put on kippah and tallit, learn about Shabbat and Pesah, shake rattles at Haman, and dress as Jewish brides and grooms.

On Shavuot, we celebrate the lavish coffee table book that comes with the “Jewish Way of Life Exhibition”, the Torah that Moses received in the wilderness. And we celebrate Torah in its broadest sense, the entire body of Jewish law and teaching, written and oral—ancient teaching, unchanged yet refreshed in every generation with judgements and responsa.

The Torah is often underestimated, and regarded as just a national code of laws, but the teaching goes far wider than laws. Though laws may be eternal—“Thou shall not kill”—many change as needs change, much as the maximum speed limits on British roads change over time. One story tells a great deal. It deals with the different traditions for celebrating Hanukkah of two great teachers, Shammai and Hillel. Shammai taught we should light eight lights on the first day, then one less each day. Hillel taught light one on the first day, then increase by one light each day. To prevent confusion and create unity, Jewish law was decided in favour of Hillel. But to show the decision was to some extent arbitrary, and to honour the views of Shammai, it is taught that in the Messianic age to come, all will follow Shammai. This one story tells that people really cared how the mitzvoth were performed, that they realised that practical and firm decisions are required, and that after such a decision the honourable winner must honour the honourable loser. In granting such honour, a brick is baked and set among the foundations of Jewish teaching, set among the foundations of the home in which we strive to live the Jewish way of life.