Tonight begins the holiday of Shavuot, or Pentecost, the “season of the giving of the Law” and the second of the three pilgrimage festivals on the Jewish calendar (the first being Pesach, or Passover, and the third being Sukkoth, or Tabernacles). And, as is frequently the case, I’ll be one of a number of congregants at my synagogue “teaching” about some aspect of Jewish text, law, history, theology, etc. (This year the topic is “money” and I’ll be talking about Jewish rabbinic ideas about debt and interest with particular reference to the credit crisis – should be fun.)
The title of this post is probably perplexing to anybody who can read it, since it’s from the very beginning of the Yom Kippur liturgy. It means: “we are permitted to pray along with those who have transgressed.” I was thinking about the phrase because Pentecost recollects a historic moment of theophany, a direct encounter with the Divine, just as Yom Kippur enacts a personal encounter in real time, and both encounters are suffused with terror. So it makes sense that the first thing we say on Kol Nidrei eve is a defensive declaration that yes, even though we have transgressed, we are allowed to be here.
I feel similarly a need for defensive declaration as I prepare for this evening. The Law that was received at Sinai according to the biblical account was, first and foremost, the Ten Commandments, which we will read from the scroll tomorrow morning. Allowing for rabbinic interpretation (particularly for #6, “Thou Shalt Not Murder,” which the rabbis interpret to include crimes such as slander, because a good name once bismirched can never be recovered just as a living soul once murdered can never be revived), I’d say I’ve broken every single one of the Big Ten. Moreover, there are plenty of them (#3? #10?) that I can’t imagine ever being able to keep truly. What standing, then, do I have to teach the community? I have only two comforts: that if everybody thought that way, nobody would ever have standing to do anything, and everything would come to a standstill; and, that if “who is wise? he who learns from every man” is true, then every man has something to teach.
I said that Pentecost recollects a theophany that is terrible in its aspect. In this, it is in contrast to Passover, which has a very different kind of theophany – terrible to the Egyptians, yes, but even for them it has the sense of an ultimately just and even loving authority bringing down the rod. The divine manifestation in Egypt brings death, but it brings death as punishment for wrongdoing. The divine manifestation at Sinai risks death from mere proximity.
Precisely because of this terrible aspect, I’ve often felt that there was a subterranean connection between Pentecost and Tisha B’Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (and a variety of other catastrophes in Jewish history). This is part of a larger pattern I see connecting the major biblical festivals with the major rabbinically-ordained holidays:
Passover – Purim
Tabernacles – Hanukkah
Pentecost – Tisha B’Av
The story of Purim is a kind of ironic retelling of the story of Passover. Both are stories of deliverance from a genocidal ruler in the context of exile (and both also have a distinct and disturbing revenge component – the despoiling of the Egyptians at the moment of the exodus, the mandate given to the Jews to slaughter their enemies on the day they were to be slaughtered). But the Passover story is all about the manifest power of God in the world, while the Purim story is about the hiddenness of that power.
Tabernacles and Hanukkah also have a clear connection; indeed, Hanukkah may have begun as a delayed celebration of Tabernacles. Both are celebrations of the Temple; both are festivals of renewal in a season of uncertainty (in the case of Tabernacles, uncertainty about the rain; in the case of Hanukkah, a winter solstice festival, uncertainty about the light); both are holidays where Jewish celebration requires physical manifestation before the world (on Tabernacles, the erection of a sukkah; on Hanukkah, the placement of the menorah in a window on the street where all can see it).
Pentecost and Tisha B’Av have a darker connection. Pentecost is the great moment of theophany in the biblical narrative, along with Passover – but the theophany in Egypt and at the Sea is overwhelmingly glorious (for the Hebrews, anyway), while the theophany at Sinai is terrible. The biblical text talks about terror, about thunders so loud they were visible to the people, and the threat of violence is ever-present, in the warnings not to approach the mountain, in the danger that God’s glory would destroy Moses if he looked at it as He passed before him in the cleft; and in God’s desire to destroy the nation after the sin of the Golden Calf. The rabbis picked up on this sense of terror; there is a story of the mountain being suspended over the heads of the people, with the threat that if they did not accept the Law this would be their grave; there is another story about the word of the law killing the people outright, and returning to God saying, look what you did! The connection with Tisha B’Av begins with the fact that it is traditionally considered the date of the sin of the Golden Calf, which took place, of course, at Sinai. As well, much of the revelation at Sinai related to the construction of the Tabernacle, the precursor to the Temple, a vessel for taming God’s destructive presence among us, the vessel that was destroyed on Tisha B’Av. Both events – the theophany at Sinai and the negative theophany of the destruction in Jerusalem – took place on mountains. Moreover, the mountain in Jerusalem was the site of an earlier moment of paradigmatic holy terror: the binding of Isaac took place on the same mountain where the Temple was built, and it’s easy to make a connection between Abraham’s willing grasp of the knife and the people of Israel’s na’aseh v’nishmah (“we will do and we will hear” – that is to say: first we will obey, then we will understand) under the shadow of Sinai.
If I had to summarize what I see as the connection, the two holidays together reveal the paradox at the heart of any relationship between God and Man. When God descends to dwell among us, as at Sinai, His presence threatens to destroy us all. When God departs from His dwelling, as in Jerusalem, He leaves us naked before the forces of destruction.
Regardless of the reasoning, I feel that sense of connection, and hence a creeping sense of terror about the evening to come.
(Or maybe I just haven’t done enough work to prepare my talk . . .)