On Wednesday night I went to hear a really holy person talk about what they learned on the mountain, and how it has impacted their life today. They spoke passionately about how they have been influenced to give immense amounts of tzedekah (charity) to a wide variety of causes, and how they have striven to live a life where they see the spark of the divine within every human person.
You guessed it – I went to see Dolly Parton.
This coming weekend, Jews across the world will celebrate our own learnings from the mountain. The holiday of Shavuot, which begins on Saturday night, traditionally commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Personally, as a vegetarian, Shavuot ranks as one of my favorite holidays, owing to the popular custom to eat dairy foods, particularly cheesecake (sorry, lactose intolerant friends!). But I know that the idea that the Torah was given on one day in the middle of the desert seems, for many Jews, far-fetched, if not historically implausible. So how do we derive something meaningful from this holiday?
Let me offer a few ideas that I learned this week from Rabbi Dolly.
Throughout her show, Dolly talks about her upbringing in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, the characters she grew up with, and what she learned from them. Yes, there’s more than a little bit of shtick there. But it is clear that the mountains provide her with an incredible anchor. They give her a rootedness that tells her where she came from, and what her responsibilities are to the world. Over her decades-long career, she’s given back immensely to her community. Her own lack of resources growing up inspired her to found her “Imagination Library,” a foundation that sends one book per month to children from birth through kindergarten. You may be surprised to learn that the Imagination Library was in fact the inspiration for the incredibly popular Jewish version, the P.J. Library. What I learned from Dolly is how incredibly powerful it can be not only own, but become an expert in your story. To be totally steeped in it, to believe it, to celebrate its joys and its eccentricities, and to be able to say to the world – this is who I am, this is where I come from, and I am the expert teller of the tale. Dolly told us that her first guitar was a crudely fashioned home-made instrument that a neighbor made for her when she was 7 years old. At the age of 70 – she was dancing across the stage playing not only the guitar, but the banjo, the mountain dulcimer, saxophone, and piano. She had taken what the mountains had to give her, and she had learned it and she owned it.
The power of Shavuot can similarly be to remind us, as Jews, of where we come from. Whether we hold to the historical element of the holiday or not, the power of Shavuot is to be able to say to the world that on this day I recognize that the letters, the words, the inspirations, the contradictions, the joys and the challenges of the story of our people is mine too. It’s my Torah. It was given to me. I carry it with me, and it gives me the roots from which I say – this is where I’m from, and I will develop my own expertise in it so that I can play my role in continuing the story of our ancestors. For by becoming the experts of our own stories we work towards fulfilling our communal story too. As David Hartman, founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem has written:
“Torah should not be understood as a complete, finished system. Belief in the giving of the Torah at Sinai does not necessarily imply that the full truth has already been given and that our task is only to unfold what was already present in the fullness of the founding moment of revelation. Sinai gave the community a direction, an arrow pointing toward a future filled with many surprises. Halakhah, which literally means “walking,” is like a road that has not been fully paved and completed. The Sinai moment of revelation, as mediated by the ongoing discussion in the tradition, invites one and all to acquire the competence to explore the terrain and extend the road.”
This Shavuot, I wish for us all the opportunity to renew our own commitments to developing our own expertise in the story of who we are and where we come from. Chag sameach! Dr. Laura Yares is Hillel International's director of educational research and innovation.