Something Good About Facebook

My wife and I are sitting at a gray Formica top table in the tiny diner that we always seem to find our way back to, the one with the black-and-white diamond parquet floor, a vague nod to the middle America of the mid-20th century.  We already know what’s on the menu, but we listlessly take a cursory glance anyway.  The only thing that’s changed over the years is the prices.

I order a salad with oil and vinegar (no croutons) and a baked potato — no butter, no sour cream.

“You want it plain?” the server asks quizzically, uncertain whether she didn’t hear right or whether I’ve lost my mind.

“Yes, please.”

The salad consists of a small pile of lettuce in the center of a glass plate, flanked by two cherry tomatoes and two slices of cucumber.  The gold and red shakers that are my salad dressing appear in their little silver holder.  We bow our heads and say grace.  We are quiet about it and most often no one notices.  Occasionally, out of the corner of an eye, we catch someone at a neighboring table gawking or making a whispered remark to his or her dining companion.  But we’ve been doing this for years and we’ve long ago ceased to care what anyone thinks.

We each have our iPhones out, swiping and scrolling at our tiny screens in between bites.  Watching us seated next to each other but bent over our phones, seemingly transfixed by the characters and images, people often get the wrong impression.  They don’t understand what they are seeing any more than they understand what they are hearing when we pray over our food.  We are not holy rollers, but we do worship God, and not the god of technology either.  We are not using our phones to avoid talking with one another, nor are we using them to text each other about the garish outfit of the woman sitting alone near the door or about the bratty kid misbehaving at the next table.  Quite the contrary, our phones have become the source of subject matter that has made for some of our most interesting conversations.  The medium of choice?  Facebook.

My wife has an account on Facebook; I do not.  I was once on Facebook for a spell, before backing away about four years ago.  For a little while, I had been thrilled with the prospect of keeping in touch with former coworkers, former subordinates, college acquaintances whom I hadn’t spoken to or thought about in 30 years, and all those “people you might know” — mostly members of churches that my wife attended as a teenager.  My initial enthusiasm waned as I became increasingly disappointed with everyone I knew on Facebook, most especially myself.  I find it convenient to say that what finalized the divorce between me and Facebook were the profanity-ridden, hateful comments posted by my nieces and nephews.  I like to say that I was tired of feeling as if I were back in junior high, a voyeur to an endless stream of bickering and vitriol.  But I know better.  That wasn’t it.  It was me!  I could no longer tolerate the way I had begun to treat Facebook as a talisman, the first thing I did when I opened my eyes in the morning and the last thing I did before going to bed at night.  I was so embarrassed with the way that I had allowed myself to be sucked into entirely too many games on Facebook.  And I became disenchanted with the superficial quality of my online relationship with people whom I barely knew, and in some cases, never knew.

These days, I take every opportunity to point out the downside of Facebook.  My wife says that my antipathy toward Facebook is no different than my promotion of vegetarianism; in both cases, I act as if I am better than everyone else.  She’s right, of course.  I do tend to harbor a rather smug attitude.  But I also believe that it is everyone’s right to pick his or her poison.  Although I no longer waste my time on Facebook, I now waste it on other things (like what I’m doing right now, for instance).

In spite of the above, I am pleased to relate that my wife and I have found a use for Facebook that we can both agree on.  And it is this in which we were engaged at the little table in the diner as we munched our dinners.

First, my wife opened her Facebook feed and passed me her phone so I could read about what’s going on with several members of our family.  This led to discussions about nieces and nephews, our little grandniece and upcoming plans.

Then she flipped to a screen on which she showed me a photo of a little old lady at a sewing machine, explaining her devotion to the charitable organization Little Dresses for Africa.  This is a woman who spends her time making one dress per day for penniless African children.  She hopes to reach a total of 1,000 dresses by the date of her upcoming 100th birthday.

But not all the stories that my wife shares with me from Facebook are so encouraging.  Next, she showed me the photo of a grisly auto wreck in our former hometown of Fresno.  Apparently, a woman strung out on meth had stolen a car and ran a red light, crashing into three vehicles.  26-year old Matthew Harkenrider was killed on his way to work as a radiology technician at a local hospital.  He had recently graduated and purchased a house; his wife had announced her pregnancy that very day.  Then my wife showed me the Go Fund Me campaign taken up for the man’s widow, an effort that has already raised thousands of dollars.

Whether inspiring or tragic, family-related or world news, my wife has probably read about it on Facebook.  And she shares it with me on her iPhone over a meal at a little diner, often leading to some of our deepest conversations.

And that tells me that there is indeed still something good about Facebook.

Toward a Better Understanding of Hypocrisy

A blog comment I ran across last week suggested that “hypocrite” is just about the worst epithet that can be applied to a person.  I do not agree.  Not at all.  It seems to me that hypocrisy has a useful and respectable place in our society and that it has been unfairly maligned over the centuries.

Let’s start by taking a moment to examine the meaning and etymology of the word “hypocrite.”  Much as I esteem the opinion of the Oxford English Dictionary, I am unable to tell you how they weigh in on the issue, as the online version is behind a paywall and my unemployed ass cannot afford the $995 cost of the 20-volume print edition or even the $400 cost of the compact CD.  Making use of the tools that I do have available, dictionary.com cites the origin of the English word “hypocrite” as the ancient Greek hypokrites, meaning “a stage actor, hence one who pretends to be what he is not.”

The original Greek appears to indicate that, at some level, hypocrisy was a socially acceptable construct.  Ancient Greek audiences understood perfectly well that the onstage histrionics they were witnessing were the products of talented actors who were not actually being murdered and dismembered before their very eyes.  This is often referred to as “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Once we leave the stage, however, society has always had a much more difficult time accepting one who “pretends to be what he is not.”  Merriam-webster.com defines a hypocrite as “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”  In modern times, the epithet “two-faced” has been applied to such an individual, but the revulsion visited upon hypocrites goes back centuries.  Arguably, the epitome of the public dissing of hypocrites was meted out by Jesus.  Among the best known statements about hypocrisy is in Matthew 23:14 (KJV), “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer:  therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.”

Despite the bad name given to hypocrisy in the New Testament, I submit to you that being a hypocrite was likely quite practical 2,000 years ago and is certainly so in our modern world of the 21st century.

1. We grew up with hypocrisy.  Most of us were introduced to the concept of hypocrisy at an early age, long before the word entered our nascent vocabularies.  Either by inference or (as in the case of my own parents) literally, our folks would tell us “Do as I say, not as I do!”  If you think about it, this makes sense.  All parents have hopes and dreams that their children will do better than they themselves did.  As parents, we have bad habits that we do not wish our children to emulate.  Of course, children are strongly influenced by the actions of their parents, which is why many fathers quit smoking or drinking or swearing when they learn that a little one is on the way.  When we are unable, for whatever reason, to forsake our evil ways, the backup plan has always been to tell the kids to “pay no attention to the man in the mask.”  Hypocrisy:  It’s how we seek to improve the next generation.

2. Hypocrisy as a coping mechanism.  A famous quote from novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald posits that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  We may, for example, simultaneously entertain the ideas that “drinking alcohol impairs my ability to function” and “I need a drink to get through the day.”  (In my own case, I suppose I should substitute ice cream and potato chips.)  One may dispute the accuracy of Fitzgerald’s assertion about intelligence, but acting against what we know to be our own best interest is a form of hypocrisy that is a valid coping strategy used to allow us to keep going (and to keep from going crazy) in the face of life’s daily contradictions.

3. Hypocrisy is a reasonable response to society’s persistence in judging us.  Back in the years when I worked in the court system, I would regularly hear criminal defendants bemoaning the law’s condemnation of conduct that they found perfectly acceptable.  Some of this is decidedly solipsistic in nature, but to a great extent, this sentiment is the product of conflicting cultural norms.  As the social workers and probation officers know all too well, the guy in the orange jumpsuit will likely think nothing of committing assault and battery if such conduct is a daily occurrence in his neighborhood, and particularly if he witnessed and/or participated in it as a child and adolescent.  “I’m being judged unfairly!” is the prisoner’s mournful moan.

How does this relate to hypocrisy?  Most of us attempt to stay on the right side of the law in order to stay out of jail, but things change considerably when it comes to matters of morality.  This may seem only marginally relevant today, but in times of restrictive social norms, we may seek to avoid the judgment of society by publicly spouting the party line while merrily pursuing our own agendas in private.  An example I mentioned in a post earlier this week is that many of us kept our criticisms of the government to ourselves in the 1950s to avoid social approbation that could include becoming unemployed and being run out of town.  Similarly, for years most gays remained “in the closet,” some even going as far as entering hetero marriages, in order to avoid being judged harshly by those around them.  So you can see that saying one thing and doing another is a reasonable response (“I have to live in this town!”) to persistent judgment by a society cherishing norms that directly contradict one’s own.  Those who hang out in the third standard deviation pretty much have the choice of being hypocrites or adjusting their behavior to conform with cultural norms.  Those who are unable to embrace either approach often find themselves in those orange jumpsuits, or arguably worse, in padded cells.

I have often pondered that much hypocrisy, as well as outright law-breaking, could be avoided if people would relocate to parts of the world in which social norms are better aligned with their predilections.  We may be horrified at, and quick to condemn, practices such as the use of hard drugs, allowing minors to consume alcohol or eating the meat of cats and dogs, but there are many areas of the world in which these are not the cultural taboos as they represent in North America.  Those who reside here but find it inconvenient to pick up stakes for an intercontinental move to a more compatible social environment often engage in culturally prohibited practices in private while, in public, pretending the horror that our society expects of them.  And let us not forget that many throughout history have found becoming hypocrites essential in order to practice their religions while avoiding death at the hands of an intolerant majority.

Rather than reviling the hypocrite, perhaps we should consider that none of us is perfect and that every one of us is hypocritical in some fashion at some point in time.  For example, we may be staunch advocates of truth-telling, yet accede to telling a “white lie” in order to spare someone’s feelings.

Among the problems that we have with hypocrites is the fear that they will “fool us” and the rage we experience when we feel that we have been duped.  This is symptomatic of a simplistic and childlike mindset that paints every situation in black and white.  We want to be able to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”  Not only does this sentiment fail to acknowledge the complex nature of modern society, but it also errs in equating the good with current social norms.  Aside from the fact that such norms change rapidly, it behooves us to recognize the value of diversity and multiculturalism in that individuals with widely divergent traditions, mores and folkways can all make positive contributions to our heterogeneous society.

Some believe that once a hypocrite has been “outed,” nothing he or she says may be trusted ever again.  We think of politicians who are elected on a “law and order” platform and then are discovered to be crooks themselves.  A few years ago, a Scientific American article pointed out that our unwarranted emotional responses to hypocrisy (i.e., our unwillingness to put ourselves in the shoes of the hypocrite or, dare I say, to examine our own hypocrisy) “tend to short-circuit rational examination” of a person’s statements.  Just because one acts hypocritically to avoid harsh social judgment in a particular area does not mean that every statement uttered by that individual should be discounted out of hand.  Compassion, particularly among those of us who profess efforts to live a godly life, seems in order.

Yet compassion appears conspicuously lacking by many, particularly by those on the religious right, who chastise hypocrites as “liars” and “haters of the truth.”  It may be more accurate to say that an intolerant, judgmental society is the real hater of truth, the truths that there will always be dissenters in our midst, that there is a place in life for personal choice, and that peaceful coexistence is possible without achieving universal consensus in regard to every belief and practice.

 

 

Einstein Was Wrong

“She has 20/20 hindsight” was one of my mother’s favorite expressions in my formative years.  Eventually, I began to understand what she meant:  That people look back and realize their mistakes when it is too late to correct them.

I guess I have a hindsight astigmatism or something.  Most of the time I think I did the right thing, so why am I constantly flummoxed when the result is less than what I expected?  Perhaps I am not critical enough of myself.  At least the 20/20 hindsight crew gets to enjoy a pity party as they bewail their stupidity of days gone by.  My vision impairment, on the other hand, seems to be a failure of clairvoyance.  I can’t seem to predict the effects of my actions with any sort of reliability.

Switching over from my mother’s bromides to my father’s pearls of wisdom, it is he who likes to remind me that Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing you’ve always done and expecting a different result.  Really?  Then how do you explain slot machines and lottery tickets?

Back in college, the guy who lived across the hall from me used to refer to this phenomenon by the shorthand SSDD (“same shit, different day”).  Surely we don’t get locked into behavioral patterns because we’re so thrilled with the results we’ve been getting.  Perhaps we are all inertia addicts, unable to resist the magnetic pull of the familiar.  (Is there a twelve-step program for this?)  Or maybe we actually do expect that things will change for the better even if we keep lumbering down the same old road.  Perhaps people really are crazy, à la Joseph Heller and Billy Currington.

Hope and Vicissitudes

I have a suspicion that expecting a different result from the same actions may be attributable to a combination of hope and our understanding of the vicissitudes of life.  The Puritan work ethic teaches us that if we do what is morally right and good, we will be rewarded in the end (if not in this life, then in the next).  My cynical parents like to say “let no good deed go unpunished.”  So, assuming that we will be slapped in the face for our good deeds, we are urged to turn the other cheek in the hope that they won’t hit us again.  And if they do hit us again, then by golly, that’s attributable to the shortcomings of evildoers who fail to see (or don’t give a fig about) the purity of our motives.

Indeed, among the many attractions of religion is the way that faith gives us hope.  And it is hope, of course, that is our vanguard against the despair brought on by life’s seeming randomness.  Although Einstein famously remarked that “God doesn’t play dice with the world,” it often seems that, even when we do everything right, we still end up rolling snake eyes.  This results in things like Xanax, Dr. Phil and books titled When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

So how are we to get from one day to the next without falling into a pit of Sartrean despair?  Certainly not by having 20/20 hindsight and realizing that our problems are all the result of our own stupidity.  On the contrary, the answer is to “keep on keepin’ on,” to chug right along with what we’ve been doing and hope that things will change for the better.  Perhaps my spouse/children/boss will start treating me better.  Perhaps my talents will finally be recognized, my knight in shining armor will ride up to my door and I’ll buy the winning Power Ball ticket.  Or, if nothing else, perhaps after a good night’s sleep, things will start looking up in the morning.  In the words of Scarlett O’Hara, “after all, tomorrow is another day.”

Einstein was wrong.  Doing what we’ve always done and hoping for a better result tomorrow is the only thing that keeps us sane.

 

A Jew in Church

star cross

My mother-in-law, whose home we will be sharing starting next week, pastors a tiny church in northern California.  She is a woman of God in the truest sense.  She devotes her life to improving the lives of others.  And she surrounds herself with other like-minded people, creating circles of love that extend outward to encompass many in the community.

On one of our recent visits, we happened to be there on Sunday, so I attended Sunday school and church services.  For a lifelong Jew to enter the world of Pentecostalism is quite an experience and could in itself be the subject of an entire blog post.  For now, let’s just say that at Christmastime, I stood in the pulpit, explained the story of Hanukkah to the congregants, and sang Maos Tzur in Hebrew.  Let others create bucket lists, but for me this could properly be added to the list of things I never imagined I’d do in a million, billion years.

I was seventeen years old the first time I set foot inside a church.  I was a college freshman and had bused across the Hudson River with the choir to participate in a choral competition at the Vassar College chapel in Poughkeepsie, New York.  I almost backed out at the last minute.  I felt guilty about going into one of those places.  You know, one of those places where the goyim pray.  I was duly impressed by the sweeping majesty of the sanctuary while I ignored the crucifix and tried not to look at the images etched into the stained glass windows.  I later told my father about the experience, but knew I could never discuss it with my mother.  Anyway, we did poorly in the competition and I stayed out of churches for a while after that.

Later on, I managed to rack up a series of Christian girlfriends, which inevitably led me into other churches in other states.  There was the one with the three-year old daughter who I helped to memorize the Lord’s Prayer.  (Of course, I had to learn it myself first.  And I nearly fell on the floor when I discovered that my father knew every word.)  Then there was the other one who alley-catted around on me but still liked to be in the pew, singing along with the hymns come Sunday.  And if I am to be honest, I must admit that there were times when I was lonely enough to attend church with a friend or two from work.

Many years later, I met and married my true love, who I had discovered, to my delight, held most of the same values that I do.  She happens to be a Christian.  Thus, I gradually learned that, although I know I could never be a Christian myself, the distance between Jews and Christians is really rather slim.  The two faiths are no more than twin branches of the same tree.  In the words of Shakespeare, “what’s in a name?”

I remember well the day I broke the news to my mother that I had asked my shiksha girlfriend to marry me and that she had actually said yes.  The conversation went something like this:

Mom: “What kind of name is Donna?  Italian?”

Me: “No.  Way back, I think they are of English ancestry.”

Mom: “What does her father do?”

Me: “He’s dead.  He worked for the railroad for many years.”

Mom: “Does her mother work?”

Me: “Yes, she pastors a church.”

Mom: “I mean for a living.”

I didn’t tell my mother about the day just a week before that I knew for sure that Donna and I were meant to be together forever.  I knew my mother wouldn’t understand about the power of prayer and how God can out of the blue one day knock you over the head like he knocked Paul off his donkey on the road to Damascus.

But now, fourteen years later, I did tell the story in Sunday school when we were up north visiting my wife’s family.  She herself was not in attendance, as she had decided to sleep in.  But the Sunday school teacher was expounding upon the subject of how the Lord knows our needs and provides for them, and she had asked for personal testimony, and I just couldn’t resist sharing.

I was crazy as a loon about Donna (still am, by the way) and I had a feeling she kind of liked me, too.  Okay, so maybe I was acting more than a bit like a giddy schoolboy even though I was just a few months shy of age forty.  What I really wanted to do was buy a ring, throw caution to the winds, and find out if I really had a chance.  The problem was that overtime had dried up at work, I had no savings to speak of, and I had no idea where I would find the money to buy a decent ring.  I had priced some rings, and I knew that I would need at least $700.  Seven hundred dollars that I didn’t have.

That’s when I started doubting myself.  Perhaps, I thought, this was not meant to be after all.  Who was I kidding?  Making a paltry hourly wage, I knew I couldn’t afford marriage.  And did I really want to impose this on the object of my affections?  Did I want to saddle her with a life of poverty?  No, of course not!

It was a night when I began to feel depressed about the situation, and I began to pray.  “Lord, if this is meant to be, please show me a sign.”  I went to sleep wondering if I was fooling myself, if God would really hear my prayer, or if He had anything to do with this at all.

In the morning, I got ready for work and, when I headed out the door of my apartment, I noticed there was an envelope sticking out of my mailbox.  Removing it, I saw that it was from PG&E, the electric company.  “What do they want?” I thought.  “My bill is paid up.”

I tore open the envelope as I walked to the car.  You could have knocked me over with a feather when I saw that it was a check in the amount of (you guessed it) $700.  I had totally forgotten that I had paid that amount as a deposit more than a year earlier and had no idea that I was entitled to a refund.

“Okay, God, I get it!” I said aloud.  It was as if all the lights had suddenly turned green.  I cashed the check and purchased the ring that very day.

The Sunday school teacher was beaming.  When I reached this point in my story, she blurted out: “You forgot the best part!  She said yes!”  I couldn’t agree more.

And so, the Jew in the Pentecostal church took the opportunity to testify to the fact that God does indeed know our needs and that He provides for them, often in some of the most improbable ways.

I write this as a reminder to myself.  I will be laid off from work at the end of next week and I am starting to panic about being unemployed.  But I know that, somehow, some way, when this door closes, God will open another.  He always does.

 

The Last Day of the Year

Elul

In the coming year we will sit on the porch
and watch the flocks of migrating birds
Children on vacation
will be merrily running between the house and the fields
Oh, how wonderful life will be in the coming year!

                                   — Approximate translation of the Hebrew folk song Od Tireh

Today is the last day of the Hebrew month of Elul and hence the last day of the Jewish year.  And just as on December 31, the close of one year and the start of another leaves me in a reflective and introspective state of mind.

Most of us approach the new year with a sense of hope and anticipation.  We like to think of the new year as a clean slate, a fresh opportunity to do better, reach higher, love stronger.  But I recently became aware that, just as many approach the Christmas holidays with a sense of dread and even depression, not everyone enjoys Rosh Hashannah.  For some of us, the apples and the honey, the singing and the shofar and the big holiday se’udot (dinners) just don’t cut it.

One reason for this, I believe, is that if taken seriously, the High Holy Days can be an emotional roller coaster.  Rather than engaging in the riotous merrymaking and drinking of 12/31, on Rosh Hashannah we very somberly admit to our shortcomings, try to figure out where we went wrong and commit ourselves to making changes that will help to make us into the people we really want to be.

Admittedly, this is not exactly fun!  If we are honest, for example, about how we have wasted our time and money, or about some of the awful things we have said and done to those we supposedly love, it can be difficult to look in the mirror.  Everyone wants to think the best of themselves; none of us wants to admit that we’ve done wrong.  Wouldn’t we have a lot better time if we were to play dance music, drink champagne, scream and shout and kiss at midnight?  What is wrong with this type of behavior is that it is geared to help us forget our troubles, not to do something about them.  Inevitably, morning comes and we’ve gained nothing but a hangover.

But why beat ourselves up?  We are not evil people who deliberately set out to do wrong.  Sure, we mess up from time to time.  We’re human.  Can’t we just accept that we’re not perfect?

The answer is that God accepts that we are not perfect.  But since we are made in His image, He also recognizes that we could be much closer to perfection than we are today.  So you’ve made mistakes?  Yes, the Lord forgives, but not so that we can forget about it and then make the same dumb mistakes again.  He forgives so that we can move on, remember where we went wrong before, and do better the next time.  God accepts that we are works in progress, but He does expect us to actually make some progress.  Saying “oh well, I did the best I could” is not acceptable.

So, yes, soul searching is not exactly a source of kicks and giggles. What we are called upon to remember is that God knows all and sees all; nothing can be hidden from Him.  We may as well admit the error of our ways, as they are already known by He who determines our fate.  And indeed, the reason that our holiday season is known as yomim naro’im, The Days of Awe, is that in the Jewish tradition, “on Rosh Hashannah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”  In between these two holidays are ten days of prayer and repentance.  The “eraser” is still in play; the Lord has pity on us when we are honest about our misdeeds and genuinely commit to turning our lives around.  In the liturgy, we pray that “repentance, prayer and charity avert the severe decree.”  God believes in second (and 128th) chances.  But if we are hard-hearted, aver that we have not done wrong and refuse to change our ways, then we have only ourselves to blame when the fate decreed for us in the new year is grim indeed.

The end of the Biblical book of Deuteronomy that we read at this season riffs heavily on the theme of choices and free will.  God has given us the ability to choose whether to do right or to do wrong.  Whichever path we take, we must accept the consequences.  For we are also choosing whether to bring the blessing or the curse into our lives.  If we close our eyes to the suffering around us, ignore the needy and the lonely in our communities, make excuses for not giving liberally of our time and our money, then we have willingly given up the blessing and have no one to blame but ourselves when our prosperity and security comes crashing down around our ears.

I do understand why the gravity of our holiest of seasons makes some people depressed and causes others to dislike Rosh Hashannah.  Yet if we vow to correct our mistakes and to improve on what we’ve done right, we have nothing to fear.  It is then that we can, as in the Hebrew folksong quoted at the start of this post, bring peace, contentment and happiness into our lives all year long.

Hag sameakh and may you be inscribed in the Book of Life for a sweet and fulfilling year.

 

A Forgotten Festival

Shavuot

This week we celebrate the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks.  As one of the shalosh regalim, the Three Festivals, it is one of the most important holidays of the year.  So I don’t understand why, in many quarters, the occasion passes by with barely a notice.

Shavuot is also known in English as Pentecost because it occurs fifty days after the start of Passover.  It is traditional to engage in the Counting of the Omer, in which each night is numbered and counted, starting on the night of the second Passover Seder.

Shavuot commemorates the Lord’s giving of the Law (matan Torah) on Mount Sinai in the wilderness.  Passover is the festival of freedom, at which time we remember how God, with miraculous acts, freed the Jews from slavery at the hands of the cruel Pharaohs of Egypt.  The Lord emancipated us so that we could become His chosen people, taking His law into our hearts to be an example to all the nations.

But first we had to learn God’s law.  As if the Ten Plagues in Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea weren’t enough evidence of God’s love for us, He further demonstrated His love by presenting the gift of the Law to us personally.  The Book of Exodus tells us that the Lord appeared in a thick cloud above Mount Sinai, amidst thunder, lightning, loud Shofar (trumpet) blasts and the mountain smoking.  All the Jewish nation gathered for the occasion, but the people were warned to keep their distance from the foot of the mountain lest they die.  We didn’t have to be told twice; with the earth quaking and the mountain on fire, we were understandably very frightened.

Finally, Moses was permitted to go up the mountain and bring back the Ten Commandments to the people.

Receiving the Law has often been singled out as the defining moment of our nationhood.  We were ex-slaves, wanderers in the desert, who only then acquired the unity and dignity required of a nation.  Our commitment to living a godly life is the glue that has held us together from Sinai to the present day.

With the acceptance of the Ten Commandments as the culmination of our history to that time (some would say ever), it is no wonder that the event occasions great anticipation that takes the form of counting the days from Passover.

Between the excitement leading up to the event and the awesome demonstration of the Lord’s power at the moment of the law giving, it is surprising to me that Shavuot is not a more widely celebrated holiday.  Among Orthodox Jews in the United States, the festival consists of two days of prayer in the synagogue, abstinence from work and enjoyment of wonderful holiday meals.  In Israel, Shavuot is a known and recognized holiday.  But among the Conservative, Reformed and other Jewish movements in America, Shavuot seems to be almost a forgotten holiday, not widely marked in the course of our workaday lives.  Each year, I have to look up the date of the holiday just to mark the occasion.

I think part of the answer to this enigma is that, as dramatic an occasion as the law giving was, today Shavuot lacks the pageantry of Passover, the High Holidays or even Sukkot.  Unlike Passover, we don’t clean our homes like crazy for weeks, then hold two Seders steeped in age-old ritual and accented with unusual foods.  Shavuot is not a fast day like Yom Kippur, nor do we blow the Shofar as we do on Rosh Hashannah.  We don’t decorate the Sukkah booth and shake the lulav and esrog.  In fact, other than reading the Book of Ruth and eating dairy foods, there aren’t a lot of special traditions associated with Shavuot that would make the holiday stand out.

If Shavuot is the ugly duckling of festivals, perhaps it is time that we bring it back to its rightful place of glory.  Perhaps we need to develop a new tradition, a standout minhag, that would appeal to children and adults alike.  As special an event as Shavuot is, we ought to figure out a way to show just how important it is to the history and future of our people.

Then again, perhaps the momentousness of the occasion is enough to make Shavuot stand out on its own.  Anything more would be gilding the lily.