For several days I had noticed colorful floats lined up in Zahal Square near City Hall in Jerusalem. Large painted plastic figures of men and women dressed as kibbutzim with tools and tractors were surrounded by fruits, vegetables, trees, flowers, grasses, greenery and barley sheavesall in readiness for Shavuot. The parade is a modern, secular commemoration of the Day of the First Fruits or Feast of the Harvest, when in ancient times farmers of Israel would bring their spring harvest to Jerusalem as a token of thanksgiving.
On the eve of the feast, traffic downtown was heavy. The sidewalks and bus station were crowded with students carrying backpacks, families with bundles and suitcases and soldiers with duffle bags and rifles slung across their shoulders. Some young girls wore pale green dresses with wreaths of green and white flowers on their heads. The market was bustling as men and women bought flowers and milk products and, carrying bulging plastic bags, hurried to arrive home before sunset. The atmosphere was like the day before Thanksgiving in the United States.
Shavuot, celebrated 50 days after Passover, is also called the Feast of Weeksseven weeks of seven days plus one day. Synagogues and homes are decorated with flowers and greens, recalling the agricultural festival. Newspapers carry notices of services at synagogues and schools, which begin at nine or ten on the evening before the first day of the feast. Courses, lectures, study and the reading of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible, attributed to Moses) continue through the night. Shavuot celebrates the tradition that Moses received the Torah and the Ten Commandments from God at Sinai on this day50 days after Passover. The readings (sometimes passages from each of the five books) honor this gift from God as well as make up for not following Torah.
At the Western Wall
In Jerusalem some spend the night at the Western Wall reading Torah while others move in procession to the wall at about four in the morning after studying in a synagogue or Yeshiva during the night. Nothing prepared me for the procession. I, of course, could drive the six miles to the Old City, but observant Jews could not. Beginning at the outskirts of the city, the streets were jammed with people walking six and seven abreast: young and old, families, young adults and children; women and girls in fine, somber-colored, modest dresses with covered heads; men and boys in black suits or religious garb with various types of hats. I saw before my eyes the image in Isaiah 2: All nations shall stream to the house of God that the God of Jacob may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.
When I arrived at the Damascus Gate at about 4 a.m., the usual mix of Arab vendors, tourists and shoppers were absent, and the stalls were shuttered. The crowds funneled through the gate into the narrow streets of the Muslim section, moving quietly in the dimly lit, twisting and arcaded alleys. The crush of people finally exploded into the Western Wall plaza. The sight and sound of men, women and children bowing and whispering, praying and reading in languages I did not understand greeted me.
I met a small group of Christians and together we read the Book of Ruth aloud (in English and French) standing at the rear of the plaza, slightly apart from the Jewish faithful. We were told that the custom is to read the Book of Ruth as dawn approaches. Ruth, a righteous convert to Judaism, an example of love, faith, dedication and devotion, remained with her mother-in-law, Naomi, saying: Where you go, I go.... Your people are my people, your God is my God. Just as Ruth received the Torah as a convert and just as it was given to the people of Israel at Sinai, some believe it is given anew to each person on Shavuot.
The reading of the Book of Ruth may have another connection with Shavuot, since Ruth became the grandmother of David, king of Israel. According to tradition, David was born and also died on Shavuot.
As the pale light of dawn turned the stones to a warm pinkish gold, we left the Old City and walked to nearby Mount Zion. The ground floor of a medieval building encloses the cenotaph that marks the spot of David’s tomb. The small synagogue adjacent to the tomb was filled with men and boys bowing and chanting prayers. On the second floor (locked at this time of day) is the traditional upper room of the Last Supperwhich is also the Cenacle, where the disciples were gathered on the 50th day after Easter awaiting the promised Paraclete. We climbed an outside stairway leading to a flat roof, where a minaret provides a reminder of a different use of the building.
Here, with the sun rising over the eastern hills, we read the account of Pentecost, the Greek title for the Feast of Weeks, which we Christians would celebrate five days hence. In the Acts of the Apostles we learn that the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples in signs of a violent wind and tongues of fire, and they began to speak. The crowds that had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot were from every nation and, drawn by the noise, heard the preaching in their own tongues. Barriers were broken, and walls of language and nationality came tumbling down.
So many images of unity and gathering, of covenant and renewal of covenant, of fruitfulness and new life lie within these celebrations of Shavuot and Weeks and Pentecost. But walls still remain. As we looked toward the distant hills of Abu Dis, we could see the separation wall winding its way through Arab, Christian and Israeli neighborhoods and towns. The world is bent and in need of the Spirit of the Torah and the Christ. But we have hope, because, as Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., wrote in God’s Grandeur:
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! Bright wings.