Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Shavuot 5771: Harvesting Our First Fruits of Knowledge

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, May 27, 2011.)

Although it may be a coincidence that Shavuot coincides with the end of the school year, the connection between the two is unmistakable. Each of the three Festivals marks (at least) two items: an agricultural happening and a rabbinic overlay. In the case of Shavuot, the agricultural happening is the harvesting of the first fruits, which the Torah instructs us to bring to the Temple in Jerusalem to donate to the kohanim. The rabbinic overlay is the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai; both of these commemorations are connected to the conclusion of studies and graduation.

The first fruit (“bikkurim”) harvest must have been a particularly joyous occasion to our ancestors. It marked the end of the tense, nail-biting period of the omer, when climatic variation caused uncertainty in the size and scope of the coming harvest, as well as the beginning of summer. The yield of a teacher’s efforts, coming on the heels of months of hard work and uncertainty, is revealed in the spring, when final exams precede summer vacation. Another year of learning has, hopefully, paid off, as the student demonstrates his/her growth.

Meanwhile, we mark God’s gift of the Torah by studying all night on Shavuot, actively displaying our commitment to learning and investment in the foundational text of our people. It is a fitting tribute - what could demonstrate our love of the Torah more than a night dedicated to study?

A recent article in the New York Times magazine cited statistics that demonstrated the near-linear correlation between level of education and income, and categorized data points according to religion. No big surprise here, but adherents of Reform and Conservative Judaism came out on top (actually, Hindus have more advanced degrees, but make somewhat less money). The article pointed to the fact that religions whose adherents are traditionally dedicated to learning, like Jews and Hindus, were more likely to yield highly-educated people and hence higher average salaries.

Frankly, the statistical, academic acknowledgment that Jews tend to make more money than the average American makes me uncomfortable, especially in the wake of Madoff and all the more so in tough economic times. However, the article reminded me that learning has always been a priority for Jews, and even today for those who are higly assimilated; we are indeed the People of the Book, and while most of us are more invested in secular studies than Talmud Torah, our ancient inclination as a nation is to learn.

Shavuot is the holiday of learning, when we reap the first fruits of a year of study. As we mark final exams and graduations, come celebrate our ancient heritage by studying some Torah with us on June 7.

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