Shavuot reflections plus Arthur Waskow on Commemorating Memorial Day

Shavuot wisdom from Arthur Waskow:

read, Sinai, & Speaking in Tongues:


Ten Notes on Celebrating Shavuot

Dear friends, Shavuot, the “Festival of Weeks,” comes this year from Saturday night May 23 through Monday eveningMay 25. Its name refers to the “super-week” of seven weeks after Passover plus one day – 7 x 7 + 1= 50), when the 50th day becomes the holy day of late spring )

Here are ten steps into understanding Shavuot (and its Christian offshoot, Pentecost):

1. The Torah describes a festival that celebrates the fulfillment of the spring wheat harvest by offering at the Temple two loaves of leavened bread and the First Fruits of the farmers’ work and the land’s abundance.  This ancient understanding invites us to renew our connection with the Earth as a sacred connection with YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Interbreath of life that connects all  life upon this planet.

2.  The text of Torah never gives any precise date for the Revelation of Torah on Mount Sinai.  The early Rabbis, bereft of the Land and strongly desiring that all future generations be able to experience the Torah in much the same way Passover made it possible for all future generations to experience the Exodus, interpreted Torah timing to make the biblical Festival of First Fruits into a festival of Torah.

Some Rabbinic interpretations of the Torah text then defined Revelation in radically open ways. Some suggested that the only expression that actually came forth at Sinai was the first letter of the Ten Utterances: an ALEPH. But the ALEPH is a “silent” letter, just an opening of the throat. So in that understanding, the deepest Truth was simply that the Universe opened its throat, wanting to speak.

3. In another view, the whole Revelation was the first word:ANOKHI,  the Hebrew for an elevated, surpassingly awesome meaning of “I.”  (The ordinary Hebrew word for “I,” like the Latin “ego,” is “Ani.”) This ANOKHI arises not only from the Mountain, from the universe, but also from each one of us, each human, each frog, each galaxy, each quark.  My own direct experience and understanding of this supernal I is here:  content/sinai-universe-says-i>

4. In the treasury of so-called “Gnostic” ancient texts written in the Semitic language Coptic and found in our own generation hidden at Nag Hammadi in Egypt,  one was labeled  The Thunder: Perfect Mind.

Most of its 60-some verses begin with the same “ANOKHI, I” and they are almost all celebrations of a female, feminine, and paradoxically all-inclusive  understanding of God:

I [Anokhi] am the first and the last 

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

I am she who is honored and she who is mocked

I am the whore and the holy woman     

I am the wife and the virgin

I am the mother and the daughter

I am the limbs of my mother

I am the sterile woman and she has many children

I am she whose wedding is extravagant and I didn’t have a husband

I am the midwife and she who hasn’t given birth

I believe this text, like that in our officially accepted Torah, is an attempt to describe the Holy ONE Who became audible and visible in a transcendent moment at “Sinai.”  Its title evokes The Thunder that Torah says was seen, not only heard, at Sinai.  For the full text and the story of its recovery, see content/i-who-spoke-sinai-and-nag-hamadi>

5. In one of the Ten Utterances that come from Sinai, the Holy Voice  insists that we not “take My Name in emptiness.” I do not think that means never to say “Oh My God!” etc. I think it means to keep fully in mind that the NameYyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh is a Breath; that we should always be aware that  every breath we take is the Name of God; and that the Breathing of our Mother Earth is the Name of God. “Do not breathe empty-minded, empty-hearted!” says the Voice.

Make a Shavuot practice of following your breath as it enters your body, is carried by your blood to every limb and organ, then leaves as you breathe out the CO2 to enter a tree, a field of grass — and there to be transmuted into oxygen and breathed out, for us to breathe in. As you breathe, let your breath carry these words: “We breathe in what the trees breathe out, the trees breathe in what we breathe out.”

6. Another of the Ten Utterances tells us, “Do not carve out false gods and worship them!”

I do not think this means only that we must not carve out and worship physical statues of stone or wood or metal.

I think it means, “Do  not carve the One Flow into pieces and worship these mere pieces of Truth. Do not make gods of race or of nation, gods of wealth and of power, gods of greed and addiction. For these ‘gods’ may seem to have ears but hear not, hands but touch not, noses but breathe not.  These idols are dead,  and those who make them and worship them will bring death on themselves.”

7. Traditionally, the Haftarah (prophetic passage) that is read on the festival of Shavuot is Ezekiel’s mystical vision of the Chariot. Jerome Rothenberg and Harris Lenowitz, in A Big Jewish Book, their amazing collection of the poetic, mystical, and subversive or superversive passages of Jewish wisdom over the past 3,000 years, make their own poetic translation of this passage.

For a way of reading it intended to lift the reader closer to Ezekiel’s own ecstatic state, first see<>

and then <>

8. The early rabbis also decided that on Shavuot, we should also read the Scroll of Ruth. It celebrates the earthiness of the Torah’s understanding of Shavuot, and especially the Torah’s commitment to social justice in sharing the abundance of the Earth.  Ruth, a penniless woman from a pariah community, is treated with love, generosity, and justice.

Read the book, imagining Ruth as a penniless woman from Guatemala trying to enter the USA across the Rio Grande. How would she be treated today? How does the Bible demand she be treated?

9.  According to Christian tradition, there was a Shavuot on which Jews who were followers of the radical Rabbi Jesus –  who had been tortured to death because he organized spiritually rooted opposition to the oppressive Roman Empire  and its local puppet government — gathered to celebrate the Revelation of Torah.

They experienced being touched by the Ruach HaKodesh – the Holy Breathing Spirit.  As if that Breath had spoken to them in every human language (as only Breath can do, since only Breathing encompasses all tongues), they found themselves able to speak in the 70 tongues of humanity.

In Christian tradition, this moment became known as Pentecost, from the Greek word for “Fiftieth Day.” From this moment they went forth to bring their vision to all peoples – sometimes by speaking words of conscience and sometimes by conquest, torture, and death..  From this moment stems all the spiritual triumphs and spiritual disasters of the Christian Church.

How do we make sure that the Holy BREATH is about speaking, not killing or torturing or conquering?

 Christians have no monopoly on oppression, torture, or killing. Some Muslims, some Jews, some Buddhists (see Burma and Sri Lanka) have turned to tyranny, out of fear or privilege or fury. For a Jewish perspective on how the festival of Sinai and Torah might look upon the festival of Israeli independence, Yom HaAtzma’ut, see my essay at <>

10. Go back to experience again two lines from “The Thunder: Perfect Mind,” as what the “I” of Sinai spoke to us all:

I am what everyone can hear and no one can say

I am the name of the sound and the sound of the name

These lines bring us back to the “Anokhi YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the first words of Torah heard at Sinai.

For if the YHWH is a Breathing,  It would indeed be what everyone can hear and no one can say.

Its letters, if we try to pronounce them, would indeed be the name of the sound and the sound of the nameA Breath.

The Voice at Sinai tells us: The Interbreathing of all tongues, all life, is what frees us from the Tight and Narrow Place (in Hebrew, Mitzrayyim – the name for Egypt).

If we hear Her in the all-night Torah-learning that the mystics bequeathed us for Shavuot, could we learn to think, to feel, to commune, to be silent in a different way?

Could we hear the Shavuot of Harvest and the Shavuot of Sinai as One:

“I am the earthy food that goes into your mouth, and I am the airy words that come forth from your mouth.”

Could The Thunder teach us that Earth and Torah are one, The One?

Could we hear the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Breath that interbreathes all tongues, all languages, all life-forms, reminding us to Hush’sh’sh’sh, to Sh’sh’sh’sh’ma – to Listen to the still “silent” Voice and cease from our oppressions of each other?

May the Shabbat and Shavuot that come at this week’s ending and next week’s beginning help us achieve these deepening of Spirit in the body!

Shalom, salaam, peace, Earth! –  Arthur





Reflectons on Shavuot

by Rabbi David Seidenberg

I also wanted to let you all know that “Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World” is going to be the subject of the Shavuot Tikkun at Congregation B’nai Israel in Northampton, with scholars Larry Fine (Kabbalah), Chaia Heller (political philosophy, ecofeminism), and Rob Dorit (biology) responding to the book and leading discussion. The title of the event is “God, Science, and Religion”. It’s a great model for programming that I could help you do in your communities.
Chag sameach,
David Seidenberg
“And I will break war from the land”: Shavuot, Shmitah, the covenant, and the promise

There are just a few places in the Torah where the other animals and human beings eat alongside each other, instead of being each other’s food. In the garden of Eden, God gives the fruit trees and the green plants to the humans and animals to eat, “the wild animals in the land and the birds and everything crawling on the land in which there is a living soul” (Gen 1:29–30 – according to Rashi, the humans and animals even eat the very same food). Then things go very wrong. But when Noah’s family gathers food for all the animals and for themselves into the ark, they all share again, living peaceably for the year they spend shut in during the flood.

That harmony, however, is shattered the minute they emerge from the ark: “a dread and terror of you will be over all the wild animals and the birds and everything that crawls, and the fish, for I have given them into your hands. Like green plants I give them to you all to eat. Only don’t eat the soul, which is the blood.” (Gen 9:2–4) This is followed by the first covenant – not with people, but with all the creatures, a reminder that God will not forsake the other creatures even if human beings will.

It seems as though Eden is forever lost, but Abraham tempts God to try one more time, to create a world where all will again be blessed. And the vision of that world culminates at Sinai, where we are given the commandment to keep the Shmitah or Sabbatical year and the Jubilee year. (See “Shmitah: The Purpose of Sinai” at

The Torah signals to us that this is a return to Eden in many ways, one of them being the return to sharing food: whatever grows from the land in the Shmitah year “will be for you for eating, for your servant and for your worker and for your sojourner who lives as a stranger with you, and for your animal and for the wild animal that is in your land.” (Lev 25:6–7)The rabbis picked up on this cue and intensified it. Not only did we have to leave our gates open in the Shmitah year so that anyone and any creature could go in to share whatever bounty grew, but we couldn’t even eat any produce in our own houses once it had stopped growing in the field, because we could only eat what the wild animals could eat.

This is the fulfillment and the purpose of the covenant of Sinai, and if we carry it out, then, Hashem (God) promises, “I will become God for you and you will become My people”. But this still isn’t the full Eden, because we could still eat the animals, and they would still be terrorized by us.The final vision, where Eden is restored, is of course evoked by Isaiah, with the lion and the lamb lying down together. But its ultimate expression comes not in Isaiah but in Hosea. In one of the most intense and beautiful passages. Hosea gives us Hashem’s message: “I will cut for them a covenant on that day, with the wild animal of the field, and with the bird of the skies and what crawls on the land – and bow and sword and war I will break eshbor from the land, and I will make them lie down in surety.” (2:20)

This ultimate vision is a covenant – a covenant with all creatures, recalling what comes after the flood, a covenant with the people, recalling Abraham’s covenant, and a covenant where the animals will no longer be in terror of human beings, recalling Eden.
But most importantly, this new covenant that will come into being recalls the covenant of Shmitah. Hosea’s words recall what we read last week in synagogue in B’chukotai, which continues the story in Behar of what happens in the Shmitah year: “I will set peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you tremble…I am YHVH your God who brought you out from Egypt, from being slaves, and I broke va’eshbor the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright.” (Lev 26:7, 13)We can learn from this that the strange phrase in Hosea, “and I will break bow and sword and war from the land”, means that just as the people were freed from Egypt, so will the land be freed from human violence. For, Hosea teaches, human violence encages and enslaves the land as surely as the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews. This is freedom not just for us, not just for the people, but for all creatures, not just once in seven years, but for all time.

And this is the purpose of Sinai, and the purpose of Torah: to call out liberty, d’ror, not just to Israel, not even just to human beings, but to all those living on the earth and in the land: “And you will call out freedom in the land to all that dwell in her.” (Lev 25:10) A call that we are still waiting for, a promise yet to be kept.

Only then, says Hosea, “will I betroth you to me in faith, and you will know YHVH. And I will answer the heavens, and the heavens will answer the earth…and I will say to My ‘not-people’, ‘My people are you’, and (this people) will say, ‘my God’.” (2:22–25)

And Memorial Day

Commemoration Ideas by Rabbi Arthur Waskow
Ashes, Stones, and Flowers

[This litany requires either actually standing at a running river or a lake, or if that is not feasible bringing a large basin of water into the center of a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. If the basin, change "river" to "water" in the litany. At best, it includes having a list of names of people of various countries who have died and are dying as victims of war and terrorism. If these are not yet available for a particular war, drop the recitation of names.]

For vibrant lives suddenly and shamelessly sacrificed, we lift up the ashes of our loss,

O Source of Life.

For the lives that continue, haunted forever by the pain of absence,

we lift up the ashes of our remorse, O Wellspring of Compassion.

For the conflagration of flames and nightmare images

forever seared into our memories,

we lift up the ashes of our pain, O Breathing Spirit of the World.

For the charred visions of peace and the dry taste of fear,

we lift up the ashes of our grief, O Infinite.

For all the deaths that have been justified

by turning the love of God or country into fanatical arrogance,

we lift up the ashes of our shame, O God.

As we cast these ashes into the troubled water of our times, Transforming One,

hear our plea that by your power they will make fertile the soil of our future

and by your mercy nourish the seeds of peace.

[The people recite the names of the dead.]

In silence, the people cast the ashes into the river

[or a bowl of water].


For the ways humanity pursues violence rather than understanding,

we lift up the stones of our anger, O Breathing Spirit of the World.

For the ways we allow national, religious and ethnic boundaries

to circumscribe our compassion, we lift up the stones of our hardness,

O Wellspring of Compassion.

For our addiction to weapons and the ways of militarism we lift up the stones of our fear,

O Source of Life.

For the ways we cast blame and create enemies we lift up the stones of our self-righteousness,

O God

As we cast these stones into this ancient river, Transforming One, hear our plea:

Just as water wears away the hardest of stones,

so too may the power of your compassion soften the hardness of our hearts

and draw us into a future of justice and peace.

[The people recite the names of the dead.]

In silence, the people cast the stones into the river

[or a bowl of water].


For sowing seeds of justice to blossom into harmony,

we cast these flowers into the river, O Source of Peace.

For seeing clearly the many rainbow colors of humanity and earth,

we cast these flowers into the river, O Infinite.

For calling us to life beyond our grieving,

we cast these flowers into the river, O Breathing Spirit of the World.

As we cast these flowers into this ancient river,

Transforming One, hear our plea:

Just as water births life in a desert and gives hope to the wounded,

so too may the power of your nurturing renew our commitment to peace.

[The people recite the names of the dead.]

In silence, the people cast the flowers into the river

[or a bowl of water].

(Litany by Rev. Patricia Pearce, former pastor of Tabernacle United Church, Philadelphia,and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of The Shalom Center) 

* * * * *



Yitgadal V’yit’kadash Shmei Rabah – 

May the Great Name, through our expanding awareness and our fuller action, lift itself to become still higher and more holy.

For our names, along with all the names of all the beings in the universe, live within the Great Name, and it is we who give it the strength to lift us into holiness  –

(Cong: Amein)


B’alma di vra chi’rooteh v’yamlich malchuteh  b’chayeichun, u’v’yomeichun, u’v’chayei d’chol beit yisrael, b’agalah u’vzman kariv, v’imru: –  

—   Throughout the world that You have offered us, a world of majestic peaceful order that gives life to the Godwrestling folk through time and through eternity —- And let’s say,


Amein (Cong: Amein)



Y’hei sh’mei rabbah, me’vorach, l’olam almei almaya.

So therefore may the Great Name be blessed, through every Mystery and Mastery of every universe.

Yitbarach, v’yishtabach, v’yitpa’ar, v’yitromam, v’yitnasei, v’yithadar, v’yit’aleh, v’yithalal > Shmei di’kudshah, —  Brich hu, (Cong: Brich Hu) >

May It be blessed and celebrated, its beauty honored and raised high, may it be lifted and carried, may its radiance be praised in all Its Holiness ––  Blessed be!

 L’eylah min kol bir’chatah v’shir’atah tush’be’chatah v’nehematah, de’amiran be’alma, v’imru: Amein (Cong: Amein)

Even though we cannot give you enough blessing, enough song, enough praise, enough consolation to match what we wish to lay before you


And though we know that today there is no way to console You when among us some who bear Your Image in our being are slaughtering others who bear Your Image in our being.


Yehei Shlama Rabah min Shemaya v’chayyim { aleinu v’al kol Yisrael, v’imru Amein.

Still we beseech that from the unity of Your Great Name flow a great and joyful harmony and life for us and for all our family, the Godwrestling folk;

(Cong: Amein) > > (


Oseh Shalom bi’m’romav, hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael v’al kol yishmael v’al kol yoshvei tevel — v’imru: Amein.

You who make harmony in the ultimate reaches of the universe, teach us to make harmony within ourselves, among ourselves –  and peace for the Godwrestling folk, the people Israel;  for  our cousins the children of Ishmael; and for all who dwell upon this planet.  (Cong: Amein)


(Interpretive Translation by Rabbi Arthur Waskow for The Shalom Center)

There is much for Jews and people of other faith traditions to admire in Christian spiritual consciousness, once we get past the justifiable pain of how the official versions of Christianity treated us in the past. With Pope Francis embracing the kind of Christianity that is so deeply rooted in the liberation traditions of Judaism, it becomes much easier for Jews to open themselves to listening respectfully and with an open heart to Christian spiritual wisdom. Here are some examples of that spiritual wisdom
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One Response to Shavuot reflections plus Arthur Waskow on Commemorating Memorial Day

  1. Bruce A. Whitehouse May 25, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    Thanks for the persective…..Bear

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