Coming fifty days after the beginning of Passover and marking the appearance of the first fruits in the Land of Israel, Shavuot is one of five festivals whose observance is commanded in the Torah. Shifting from an agricultural focus to a more historical/spiritual emphasis, the ancient rabbinic Sages came to also understand Shavuot as the day when G-d gave the Torah at Sinai and thus gave it the additional name z’man matan Toratenu—the time of the giving of the Torah.
Indeed, for this reason alone it would appear that Shavuot should be considered the most important of all Jewish holidays. After all, without the Torah, there would be no Judaism; without Judaism, there would be no holidays–or any other observances and rituals for that matter. And yet, of all the five festivals mentioned in the Torah, Shavuot is arguably the most neglected among Jews in this country—certainly among the non-Orthodox.
Why has this day commemorating the most seminal event in Jewish history been so forgotten? Why this neglect? There are several possible reasons:
- Observed for either one or two days, Shavuot doesn’t share the seven- or eight-day observance period of its sister holidays, Passover and Sukkot. It’s here and gone practically before you know it.
- In this country, Shavuot occurs toward the end of the school year and the beginning of summer: students are preparing to finish their studies and/or graduate, and folks are planning and preparing for vacation trips. Despite the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot deemed to be a period of spiritual enhancement and growth, it apparently is not the case that this period evokes the same spiritual solemnity among most American Jews as does the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur season.
- There are precious few ritual observances and religious objects that are specific to the observance of Shavuot. The shofar, apples and honey and new years’ cards are associated with the High Holiday season. Sukkot has the sukkah and the lulav and etrog. Passover is observed throughout its seven or eight days by participating in a seder, eating matzah, and refraining from eating chametz. However, besides the tradition of eating dairy foods on the holiday (reminding us that the Torah nourishes our souls the way milk nourishes our bodies), the ritual object most associated with Shavuot is the Torah itself—of prime importance in Jewish life, to be sure, but still an item that is associated with more “day-to-day” (routine?) Jewish living, and therefore not necessarily evoking the same sense of anticipation that a once-a-year experience of hearing the shofar, spending time in a sukkah, or attending a seder might evoke.
That the day commemorating the giving of the Torah—THE formative event in the history the Jewish people– should be so neglected and forgotten by so many of us is at best puzzling and at worst a shame. However, in the spirit of “better to light one candle than to curse the darkness”, rather than add to the teeth-gnashing and handwringing, might our religious leaders try something a bit more creative, and a bit “out of the box”? Might we try to revive the significance of Shavuot in our collective Jewish memory, by associating it with helping those among us whose memories are failing? Might we better remember this holiday by helping our fellow Jews with dementia—those who can no longer remember so well—to stay connected to Yiddishkeit and the Torah by celebrating the holiday with them?
One might legitimately ask: Shavuot and Jews with dementia—can one think of a connection so incongruous and far-fetched? And yet, describing the experience of our people when G-d spoke at Sinai, our Tradition offers this:
“Kol HaShem bakoach/the voice of the Lord is powerful; kol HaShem beh-hadar/the voice of the Lord is stately… (Psalm 29:4) which, as Rabbi Hama bar Hanina explained, means that the voice of the Lord is powerful (ba-koach) for those who were young, and full of majesty (be-hadar) for the aged.
— Songs of Songs Rabbah, V, 16 (Soncino edition, p. 253)
Rabbi Tanhuma said: …Just see how the Voice went forth—coming to each Israelite with a force proportioned to his individual strength—to the old according to their strength, and to the young according to theirs…
Exodus Rabbah V, 9 (Soncino edition, p.87)
During my 25+ years as a chaplain helping Jews with dementia stay connected to their Jewish heritage, I have relied on these two teachings as my “prooftexts” in advocating spiritual care for Jews with dementia that is substantive and ongoing. Affirming that EVERYONE—every Jew who ever lived and who ever would live—heard “the Voice” on that first Shavuot, these texts also affirm that EVERYONE—no matter their age or level of cognitive ability–responded to “the Voice” according to their strength. Even those with cognitive deficits could still hear “the Voice”, because when a person hears “the Voice”, it’s not just the Mind that hears…it’s also the Soul.
Indeed, many professionals who have worked with people coping with dementia will tell you: dementia may ravage the Mind, but it most certainly does not ravage the Spirit. On the contrary, it is often the case that as a person’s cognitive abilities and “filter” weaken, his/her spirit may become more vibrant, more alive– more spontaneous. To be sure, the term “spirit” here is not synonymous with “religion”, nor does it necessarily refer to any articulation of religious beliefs. “Spirit” here refers to that which animates a person—what gives him/her joy, what helps him/her feel the capacity for loving and being loved. It refers to what nourishes the Soul.
That spiritual nourishment occurs when we help them maintain 1) relationships with loved ones and friends, and 2) a sustained connection to their culture/faith community. Both strengthen their sense of personal identity and worth, which is felt on a level that is not cognitive or intellectual. In other words, such efforts help people with dementia continue “to hear the Voice”, according to their individual strength. And, though the positive affect from such experiences may be sustained only for a brief time, nevertheless what occurs during those brief times is often an expression of a deeply felt spiritual vigor and enthusiasm, making the experience itself genuine and necessary for the total well-being of the person.
Moreover, while the commandment to honor the elderly–“mipnei sayva takum, v’hadarta p’nei zaken…/you shall rise before the aged and show deference to the aged… (Leviticus [19:32])– is often cited, the commandment that follows it– “v’ki yagur itkha ger b’artsekhem, lo tonu oto/when a stranger resides among you, you shall not wrong him” (Leviticus [19:33])—is also a propos in this context.
Rabbinic teaching assumes that because the Torah is from G-d, it is perfect: nothing in it—no letter, no word, no verse—is there accidentally, or was placed there haphazardly. From this assumption, therefore, we learn a subtle but very poignant lesson from the juxtaposition of the commandment to honor the elderly (Leviticus [19:32]) and the commandment prohibiting mistreatment of the stranger (Leviticus [19:33]): that we must take care not to treat the elderly of our community—many of them lifelong members of the community– as if they themselves were strangers.
Unfortunately, too often we do just that—especially if they have dementia. Even when we are diligent in addressing their physical and medical needs, there is often an accompanying ignorance–even a palpable discomfort and fear–when it comes to communicating with these individuals and being in their presence. Furthermore, our discomfort and fear often increases as their dementia progresses. In turn, we may well find ourselves finding all kinds of excuses to spend less time with them. Consequently, having little to no contact with people from the community itself (regardless of whether they’re being cared for at home or in a facility) they may very well be marginalized, disenfranchised and treated like a stranger by the very community to which they have always belonged—a clear “disconnect” from what the Torah teaches.
Moreover, this marginalization and disenfranchisement are exacerbated by the widespread assumption that people with deep cognitive impairment do not have spiritual needs, nor do they have a capacity to express their spirituality. As one man once said to me: “My father doesn’t know what day it is. How could he possibly care about Shabbat?” And yet that same “father” would routinely greet me on Friday afternoons before our Shabbat program with the words, “Rabbi, it’s time to talk to the Boss!”
That both of these commandments are found in Leviticus 19—known as the “Holiness Code” –is perhaps no accident. Their juxtaposition is a powerful call to the Jewish community to remember how sacred this obligation to its senior members truly is: 1) to help them continue to feel that they are a cherished part of the community, and 2) to make sure that, even as their physical and medical needs are addressed, their emotional and spiritual needs will not be ignored or marginalized. Indeed, the sanctity of such efforts on behalf of those with dementia is brought into clearer focus in light of this teaching:
Be careful with an old man who has forgotten his knowledge through no fault of his own, for it was said: Both the whole tablets (the second set of the Ten Commandments) and the fragments of the tablets (which Moses shattered) were placed in the Ark.
On Shavuot the tablets that Moses would shatter first appeared whole. On Shavuot, the souls of those who eventually would forget were among those who heard the Voice who spoke what was on the tablets, and they heard it, according to their individual strengths. Thus, what more appropriate time than on Shavuot to reach out to with Jews with dementia through programs such as these:
- religious schools participating in holiday services with Jewish dementia residents in long-term care facilities.
- confirmation classes of those religious schools spending time with these residents: asking them how they feel about the Torah and being Jewish, or reminiscing with them about memories of observing the holiday they might have.
- synagogues devoting a portion of Shavuot holiday programming to educating congregants about dementia itself—the different diseases that cause it, how it affects a person and his/her family…and how to support those affected by it.
- Youth groups, men’s /women’s groups, and JCC senior programs bringing holiday greetings in person to every Jew in their respective communities who is struggling with dementia, whether being cared for at home or in a care facility.
Note: by engaging Jews with dementia in these ways, a person will be simultaneously: 1) celebrating the holiday 2) engaging in Torah study 3) showing deference to the elderly 4) not wrongly them by treating them as strangers 5) restoring to them what they may have been lost, by keeping them connected to their spiritual roots (cf. Deut. [22:13]). In other words, one would not be “doing a mitzvah”—one would be doing five mitzvot—all at the same time!
On that first Shavuot, we all stood at Sinai as one community, hearing the Voice of G-d according to our individual abilities, but also pledging to do the Divine will in unison. In modern times that unity, like the first tablets, has been shattered; it sometimes seems that we have become, in the words of Rabbi AJ Heschel z”l, “messengers who have forgotten their message”, often forgetting the anniversary of our having received message itself.
May this upcoming Shavuot—and those that follow—see a renewed effort on our part to remember the message by better remembering its anniversary. May we do this by helping those who struggle with forgetting to also remember. May we bring this holiday that has been marginalized back to its rightful place in contemporary Jewish life by bring back those who we have marginalized to their rightful place in our community.
On Shavuot, may we continue to hear the Voice according to our strength, precisely because we are helping others to hear the Voice according to their strength.