On the evening of May 27, the Jewish communities around the world will be celebrating the 3,300-year-old festival of the First Fruits. This festival, known as Shavuot, literally: "weeks," is celebrated 49 days (seven weeks) following the celebration of Passover, of the miraculous liberation of the ancient Israelites from bondage some 3,300 years ago. On the 50th day, at the completion of the week's worth of weeks, the people experienced a collective vision at the foot of Mount Sinai, a revelation that was to forge their spiritual path in the form of the Torah.
The number seven plays an important role in Jewish tradition: Creation was completed in the seventh cycle; the land is not to be worked every seventh year; all lands revert back to their original owners in the 50th year (following seven times seven years); all work is to cease on the seventh day; the Menorah, or candelabra, that illuminated the inner sanctum of the ancient Hebrew temples, had seven branches; and numerous other examples (at least seven more of them).
One of the many mysteries of this number, and therefore also of the festival that bears its name, has to do with the Hebraic spelling of the word for seven, which, with varying vowels while maintaining the exact same spelling, creates two alternate meanings: contentment (save'a) and commitment (shava).
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Seven is therefore a teaching about knowing when it is enough, when what we are doing needs to come to a halt to allow for its unfolding.
The ancient rabbis taught that one of the names of God is "The One who said 'Enough.' " After all, they argued, God could have continued creating after the sixth cycle, after the creation of the human, but chose to stop in order to allow creation to unfold further on its own (last word in the Hebrew text in Genesis 2:3). In fact, creation, they taught, did not become realized until God ceased creating in the seventh cycle.
The Jewish mystical tradition, or the Kabbalah, describes God as creating the world by stepping back, thereby allowing it to come to fruition. This teaches us that in stepping back from what we are creating, it has a better chance of becoming actualized. The sculptor needs to stop at some point and declare "Enough!" or she will be left with a pile of dust, having chipped away endlessly at the stone.
Each of us in our own way, in what we create in this world, are reminded by the teaching of Seven that we need to stop every now and then in order to allow for the other to come forward, whether a relationship partner, a child, a flower, a horse, or an essay. To do so requires a commitment, the second alternate meaning of the Hebrew word for seven. Commitment requires us to step beyond our compulsion, beyond the hypnotic flow of our momentum, in order to honor the unique and independent quality of something or someone, even of ourselves.
Seven times seven days following the liberation of my ancestors from slavery, their ever-accelerating spin into freedom nearly made slaves out of them all over again, for what difference does it make if you are a slave to a pharaoh or to an ideology? And so at the conclusion of the seven weeks, they stood at this impressively jagged mountain in the wilderness of Sinai and were reminded that they were who they were not because of anything they were doing or thinking or achieving, but in spite of it. All they experienced in the divine resonance, the ancient rabbis tell us, was "I am." The rest of the verbiage of the Ten Commandments (in Hebrew it reads: Ten Sayings) that followed had to be repeated by Moses later (Exodus 20:16).
The giving of the Torah at Sinai in the time of Contentment required Commitment, and so the people declared: "Whatever Infinite One resonates to us we will do" (Exodus 19:8).
More appropriately, Shavuot should be referred to not as the Festival of Weeks, but the Festival of Sevens, to remind us how important to the process of creation, whether art or relationship, is the act of finding a stopping, a place to draw contentment at some point in whatever it is we are doing. "Who is the wealthy one?" asked the second-century rabbi, Ben Zoma: "The one who is content with what he has in the moment" (Talmud, Avot 4:1). That is, in any given moment.
Gershon Winkler is rabbi for Congregation Har Shalom in Missoula.
If you're interested
Shavuot will be celebrated by Har Shalom, the Missoula Jewish community, on Friday at 7 p.m. at the Best Inn and Conference Center, 3803 Brooks St. For details, call 523-5671.