Shavuot Message from Rabbi Black

Posted on May 30, 2018

We are now just over half way in our journey to receiving the Torah. This journey, which began with Pesach and our exodus from Egypt will culminate three weeks from now in the holiday of Shavuot, when we will commemorate the receiving of the Torah. While our ancestors gained their physical freedom with the exodus, they were very far from gaining the spiritual and emotional freedom that marks the true nature of a free people.  Their bodies were free; their spirits were still enslaved, having been degraded and dispossessed for 210 years. It would take years before the Jewish people would be able to approach G-d as a free people—in mind, body and soul—and accept the gift and responsibility of receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It would take many trials, failures, and errors in judgement before the ancient Israelites would transform themselves to live for our higher purpose.

This journey to freedom finds its parallel in the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, the period that we call the omer. Another name for Shavuot is atzeret, meaning “stop,” as it acts as the bookend to the seven week period that begins with Pesach. During this period of time, we count the omer (a practice called sefirat haomer) as an expression of anticipation for receiving the Torah on Shavuot.

The emotional, personal journeys that the ancient Israelites had to undergo as they prepared themselves for receiving the Torah serves as a historical reference to another practice:  that of using this seven-week period as an opportune time to refine within ourselves certain emotional traits that find expression in each of the weeks between the two holidays. So when we count the omer, we also dedicate ourselves to refining our characters toward any constructive action that align with God’s purpose.

The traits that are commonly associated with the seven-week omer period are kindness (chesed), strength (gevurah), harmony (tiferet), fortitude (netzach), gratitude (hod), foundation (yesod), and royalty or kingship (malchut).  As a whole, the first three traits relate to developing a balanced and harmonious sense of compassion, one that is tempered with the countervailing traits of judgement and restraint. The next three traits relate to developing willful and purposeful action, of going out in the world to accomplish what one envisions, but in a manner that is harmonized with a sense of gratitude.

This personal mission of self-development is one that NCSY undertakes on an organizational level as we strive to mentor and guide teens to refine their character traits toward their personal self-fulfillment. As Jews, we are not the people of the law only; we are the people of compassion and caring, the people of doing for others and the people that strive to achieve a harmonious balance in whatever we do.

It is my goal to ensure that the teens that we reach through NCSY know that to be a Jew is to be whole and complete — in mind, body and soul. Our mission is to inculcate positive character traits (middot) among our NCSYers, expressed in how they treat and show love for their peers, their family members, the larger community, and Israel.

There is a sense of dignity and refinement in what it means to be a Jew. This is expressed in the final trait, which is royalty or malchut, the culmination and perfection of the first six traits. Our teens are budding princes and princesses, the embodiment of royalty in the best sense of what it means to live as Jews—in harmonious balance within themselves and how they relate to the world around them.