The three streams of Shavuot


The book of Exodus says that seven weeks after Passover, God delivered the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, to Moses, who gave them to the Israelites.

From Thursday through June 10, Columbia Jewish Congregation, with Jews around the world, will celebrate this event during the multifaceted holiday of Shavuot.

"Shavuot absorbs three streams of meaning: the giving of the Torah, the first fruits of the harvest and, in the non-Orthodox tradition, graduation from Hebrew school and post-Hebrew school studies," says Rabbi George Driesenof the Columbia Jewish Congregation.

At the congregation, all three streams will be recognized during the three-day celebration that will include study, discussion, worship, song, and bat mitzvah and Hebrew school celebrations.

On Thursday evening, members of the congregation will gather for a session of study and song, and will discuss topics relating to the holiday.

This focused study of the Torah and Torah-related topics reminds Jews that their forebears slept through the initial revelation of the law from God. Participants will discuss how to understand the sacred and revelatory nature of the Torah.

"Our culture has looked at this text and has loved it and has interpreted it differently in different times in Jewish culture," Driesen says. "How do we understand it today? How does God communicate with human beings today?

"People in this congregation are very bright and very engaged, and it should be a fascinating discussion. This is significant."

Susan Benson, a member of the congregation, agrees. "The Torah is not just the foundation of Judaism, but takes in the ethics of our entire society, including Christian and Muslim society. Our society is based on the giving of this law. It's important to remember and recognize this."

On June 9, the day after thestudy of the Torah, the Shabbat service will officially usher in the holiday. This service will include blessings for the first fruits of the harvest.

During the service, the end of the Columbia Jewish Community School's year will be celebrated and graduates recognized among them post-bat mitzvah students Lisa Malkieland MarissaLyon. The graduation strand of Shavuot is "an American phenomenon that gives a lot of energy to our people ... because something is happening in the lives of their children," Driesen says. "One of the functions of religion is to mark important occasions in people's lives."

On June 10, another significant "graduation" event will be marked as three women in the congregation - Diane Paul-Brown, JeriLipovand Linda Chwieroth- celebrate becoming "wives" of the Torah in a bat mitzvah ceremony.

These women, who have spent a year in study, "have the service in their hands," says Driesen. "That ... any adult would study so she can sing the Torah parts and prepare a drosh [homily] shows remarkable dedication to what we're doing. It's ... a big day for the congregation. It ties together the whole notion of the sacred character of the Torah with the notion that these women have graduated from a year of study. I'm very enthusiastic about it."

For cantor Jan Morrison, the harvest aspect of the holiday holds an added significance. "I grew up in Minnesota in an agricultural community. To me, Shavuot represents part of the life cycle, both figuratively and literally."

"Shavuot is one of the most satisfactory of holidays ... it's not an extreme ... it interweaves the celebration of first fruits, the giving of the Torah, and the graduation of young people just beginning the rest of their lives," Morrison says.

To Morrison, the meaning of the holiday is basic. "It's a thank-you. It's saying that it isn't we who do any of this by ourselves ... we are tenants on this Earth, but it is God's."

All are welcome to attend the Shavuot celebration at Columbia Jewish Synagogue at the Oakland Mills Meeting House, 5885 Robert Oliver Place. The Shavuot study session begins at 8 p.m. Thursday; the Shavuot Shabbat service starts at 8 p.m. June 9. Information: 410-730-9355.

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