Sacred Time

Shavuot: Each According to Her Strength

Our holiday Shavuot is the highlight of the month of Sivan. Through Shavuot we celebrate and reenact the gift of Torah at Mount Sinai. Our custom is to stay up all night learning. This learning can take many forms, from traditional Hebrew Bible and Talmud text study to meditative exploration of spiritual Jewish themes to movement and song (especially when we need that 3am boost!).

The Shavuot experience reminds us of the Midrash (Rabbinic interpretation of the written Torah) that teaches that the soul of every Jew who ever was or will be born in a Jewish body or choose Judaism was present at Sinai. For that transformational event, each of us was swept up in G-d’s holy time, which is everything, everywhere and all at once. 

Here are the exact words of that text:

“I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the YHVH our God and with those who are not with us here this day.” (Devarim 29:13-14) “Not with you alone” but the generations that have yet to come were also there... And why does it say: “Those who are not with us here”? Because all the souls were there, [even] when [their] bodies had still not been created.
Midrash Tanhuma Nitzavim 3

Furthermore, it is taught that each of us was given a special taste of Torah according to our unique capacity to take it in. This means that we all have unique Torah to share with the world which will never be heard if we don’t let it out.

“Come and see how the voice [of God] went forth [at Sinai]—coming to each Israelite according to his individual capacity—to the old, according to their capacity; to the young according to their capacity; to the children according to their capacity; to the infants according to their capacity; and to the women according to their capacity.”
— Shmot Rabbah 5.9

As the great 20th century Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas teaches,

"It is as if the multiplicity of persons—is this not the very meaning of the personal?—were the condition for the plentitude of ‘absolute truth’; as if every person, through their uniqueness, were the guarantee of the revelation of a unique aspect of truth, and some of its points would never have been revealed if some people had been absent from humankind."

We who are now the generations of parents and elders have the unique Torah of our souls to share with our peers and younger generations, and the time is now. I love how our tradition teaches that everyone—of every gender and generation—was part of that great miracle. No one was too old or too young to learn. Our tradition is meant to be accessible to everyone.

As Rabbi Shefa Gold, a teacher of my generation, writes:

“Our inheritance is a treasure chest filled with tools, created and refined for thousands of years, that can help us to dig beneath the surface of our lives; to find meaning here and now; to act in ways that reveal the essential mystery of Creation and our interconnection with all life. When we are connected to that river of joy, then we have the strength and inspiration to participate consciously in our own evolution. These treasured tools are language, story, culture, the rhythm of the festivals, music, meditative techniques and the ancient dreams that were born of the wilderness.”

I first got to learn with Rabbi Gold when I was studying for rabbinic smichah (ordination) at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (AJRCA). AJRCA’s rabbinic program is geared toward working adults. The schedule of classes assumes that students have families and jobs and other commitments and that we can be trusted to work outside of class in chevruta (pairs) and on our own.

Almost all of us in my class were second or third career students: psychiatrists and lawyers, handypersons, cooks, and journalists, and one mamash (literal) rocket scientist. Most were parents, several were grandparents. It has been a pleasure to watch my colleagues bring all of the lessons of their full lives to the work of comforting the sick, sparking the love of Torah in children and adults, working toward a fairer society, and leading synagogue communities in their Jewish journeys.

I am so grateful that my colleagues listened to the call of their souls and embraced the rabbinate during those years when some of their colleagues in other fields were beginning to consider retirement. I am so glad that we get to learn their Torah.

Shavuot reminds us that none of us is ever too old to learn as well as teach. The Torah portion read during our sunrise morning service contains the Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments. It is said that, as we hear those ancient words, having risen in body and soul as we are able, each of our souls receives its own private Torah for the coming year. Just as we hear each Torah portion, each parashah, differently from year to year as we grow, every year the Ten Commandments hit a little different. We are all teachers, and we are learners too.

At The Well uplifts many approaches to Jewish practice. Our community draws on ancient Jewish wisdom, sometimes adapting longstanding practices to more deeply support the well-being of women and nonbinary people. See this article’s sources below. We believe Torah (sacred teachings) are always unfolding to help answer the needs of the present moment.


Shavuot: Each According to Her Strength
Rabbi Robin Podolsky
Rabbi Robin Podolsky

Rabbi Robin Podolsky serves on the Board of Governors for the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din, writes at TribeHerald and, and serves as writing facilitator and dramaturg for Queerwise, a spoken word and writing group. She conducts workshops, rituals and study sessions, for Jewish holidays and other occasions, that combine modalities: text study, personal work and small group sharing, writing (except on Shabbat and Yom Tov), prayer and meditation.

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