Shavuot, though it’s a major holiday, is one of the less observed and less understood events in much of the Jewish world. Rather than the classic narrative – they tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat – Shavuot is about receiving the Torah, the tangible, readable, interpretable vessel of that classic narrative and all the imperatives that come out of it. Shavuot is about encountering the divine, not in a moment of crisis, but as a traveling partner setting out on a journey.
Jewish thinkers have struggled with the question of what exactly the Jewish people received at Mount Sinai. Opinions range from the whole Torah, with every commentary and interpretation that will ever be made, to just the ten commandments, to no more than the first (silent) letter aleph of the first commandment. This final opinion, whether we understand it as the primary “truth” of what happened or not, points to the power of the experience at Mount Sinai as an encounter with divinity, the closest the people would come to knowing God, their travel partner on the long journey ahead.
When we think of the experience at Mount Sinai as a moment of encountering God – a moment of connection, intimacy, a spark of understanding – we can see Torah as we know it – the tangible scroll, the words written in it, the translations, the interpretations, the commentaries, the sermons that apply it to contemporary life – as a kind of sacred story-telling. When we engage with Torah, we are in a sense passing on the experience of encountering the divine.
Today, when people think about encountering God, if they think about it at all, they think about miracles, and part of what makes Shavuot a bit unusual or harder to relate to, is that the miracle of Shavuot is encounter with the divine. Other than the divine encounter, it was an ordinary day. True, the people eventually needed to learn how to escape the slave mentality, and the Torah could act as a guide. But there wasn’t an immediate pressing need for a miracle, like when they were stuck between a sea and a pursuing army.
In fact, the connection between the experience at Mount Sinai and Shavuot is drawn by the Rabbis. In the Torah itself, Shavuot is a harvest holiday (like the harvest elements of Passover and Sukkot). It is a moment for offering the first fruits of the year with gratitude for the everyday miracle that they grew.
When we think about miracles today, the one experience that people tend to understand as truly miraculous is the birth of a baby. We may or may not be lucky enough to experience the birth process as miraculous, but the experience of participating, with whichever partners are involved, both human and divine, in the creation of a human being is miraculous. We can measure, study, analyze and to some extent control birth, and yet it maintains an element of mystery, a sense of awe. However we understand, or don’t understand, God, the emergence of a new human being is an encounter with something beyond our normal capacity as people, and it touches us powerfully, and changes us as we move forward.
Like the encounter at Mount Sinai, there are many ways of retelling the story of a birth. There are distinct individual perspectives on what happened, why, and how. There are multiple interpretations of the story. Even the same person may understand the story differently in different moments. And then, of course, each birth, each mother has her own experience, different from any other.
The core activity of a Birth Circle is telling birth stories, in a supportive, respectful environment. Each woman has a different story to tell, and may reflect on it in a new way at each Birth Circle. And through the process of telling and hearing each other’s birth stories, accounts of individual encounters with that mysterious divine creative energy, our community is enriched just like it is through studying Torah, and retelling the stories of our holidays. Just like Torah, it can take ongoing reflection, multiple interpretations, and the attention of a community that affirms the value of the story to draw out all the meaning and power the story holds.
Birth Circles are a great way to connect with others, to build community, to exchange baby care tips and get people’s recommendations for all the resources you need when you’re pregnant or have a new baby. And they can also be a place for sacred story-telling. They can hold the many experiences, values, perspectives, fears, triumphs, disappointments, surprises, and strengths that make up the tapestry of our communal relationship to the miracle of the birth process.
JBN Birth Circles are about the Jewish community acknowledging: Birth is miraculous. Stories are powerful. Telling the stories of our birth experiences – from pregnancy, to labor, to nursing, nurturing, and sleep deprivation – helps us understand ourselves and others as people and as Jews, and enriches our community with fresh memories of the experience of encounter with the divine.
For more information about the Birth Circle series, traveling this summer and fall around the Boston area, see www.JewishBirthNetwork.com/birth-circles.html. Or click here to register for June 12 at Mayyim Hayyim.