April 12, 2024
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Through the traditional readings on Shavuot, we experience revelation in multiple forms. In the Torah reading on the first day, we prepare our bodies for a grand revelation, and are shaken at the blasting sounds of shofar, God’s word from the blazing Mount Sinai, and a synesthetic experience of thunder and lightning. The content of revelation here is God’s statement of God’s identity, and then law: The Aseret HaDibrot. In our admission that God’s voice is too powerful for us, we recognize that Moshe’s experience of God is quite different. He ascends to the heavens to receive God’s word, yet can also encounter God regularly in the Tent of Meeting.

In the Haftorah we follow Yehezkel as he meets God in a different way. In his vision, God is seated on a throne atop a flaming chariot of four-faced, four-winged creatures, moving atop eyed double wheels, as an introduction to a prophecy of punishment and destruction.

Yet on the second day of Shavuot, we meet Ruth, a Jew by choice, who meets God, not at a smoking, thundering, blazing mountain, and neither from a supernatural vision of flaming winged animals, but in her quiet life of sorrowful yet intimate relationships. She chooses her mother-in-law Naomi’s God when she persists to follow her back to Beit Lehem: “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). By this moment, Ruth has suffered loss of her spouse, brother-in-law and father-in-law, though the Scripture itself has told us little about what Ruth saw in Naomi or in the God of Israel she chooses to follow. God does not act explicitly in the Megillah, but as God’s Name lives on the lips of Boaz, Naomi and surrounding community, it is through Ruth’s humble and devoted relationships with her elder Naomi and her yavam Boaz that she joins the God and People of Israel.

From just these three passages, we see radically different forms of Divine revelation: Dreadful, fiery sights and deafening sounds on one hand, and God’s hidden hand in human acts of kindness on the other. God’s revelation brings commandments in Shemot, announcement of destruction in Yehezkel, and, in the case of Ruth, blessing and redemption (through the Davidic line she births).

How can these differing models of revelation cohere, and what can they teach us about chinuch?

The great Talmudic sage, Rava, raises the issue of differing visions of God in Tanach. In a discussion about Yehezkel’s chariot vision (bTalmud Hagigah 13b), Rava is concerned with the contrast between Yehezkel’s vision of the Divine, with ornate description of the creatures and Enthroned One, and Yeshayah’s brief description of God’s chamber of seraphim that moves on to the prophecy within just a few verses. Rava responds that Yehezkel is like a villager coming to see the king whereas Yeshayah is as a city dweller coming to see the King.

Commentators take Rava’s sparse statement in different directions.

The Maharsha takes Rava’s parable somewhat literally (Hiddushei Aggadot, Hagigah 13b). Yeshayah was indeed a city dweller, a nephew of the king and a regular in his court in Jerusalem. Thus, even when seeing God’s Heavenly Court, he was unphased. Yehezkel, on the other hand, was country folk, a Kohen who resided in Anatot, not a regular guest in the king’s court in the capital. Since he rarely merited to see the court of a king of flesh and blood, he was ever more taken and astounded when he saw a royal court at all, and to a much greater degree, the Heavenly Royal Court of God. The visions are thus portrayed differently because they are filtered through the eyes of different beholders, shaped by their experiences, environments and upbringings.

Hasidic sages take this idea even further, commanding us to envision God through our own image and experience. Not only are metaphors of God human projections, according to some Hasidic masters, we are in fact commanded to envision God in a relatable human form (see Art Green, Radical Judaism, ch.2, n.15).

Both of these interpretations of Rava hold valuable messages for us as educators. The Maharsha’s commentary speaks to how we listen to our students. Our students are individuals with diverse childhood experiences, each taking in the world in their own unique way. They thus have diverse understandings of God and how Torah speaks to them. Our job as educators is to listen to each child, to honor their experiences and beliefs, and to truly see them as whole students making sense of the entire range of life they experience.

The Hasidic take gives inspiration for what we offer to our students. Recognizing that in their diversity, our students are learning, growing, changing individuals, it is our task to provide them with materials that catalyze and inform their development of new ideas and beliefs. If God’s revelation is to be as diverse as we are, we must provide our students with multiple entry points for meeting God. Students who enjoy crafting and designing may connect with God as the Cosmic Artist or Maker. Students who love the outdoors may find God on the trail, and young chefs might connect with God as the Ultimate Nourisher. With the popularity of mythology in young adult literature, some students may be especially drawn to the mythic descriptions of God sprinkled throughout Tanach. And there are some students who will be drawn to intellectual abstractions in the tradition of Rambam’s adaptation of Aristotelian philosophy.

The diverse revelation stories of Shavuot teach us that each of these is important. As teachers guiding students to live in relationship with the Divine, we must provide our students with these different entry points. In action, this means providing a diverse array of “texts,” both written and in multimedia such as visual and aural, that show these different paradigms of God from our rich tradition. It also means giving students the opportunities to express themselves and connect with the world in the modalities that speak to them, as chef, musical composer, game maker, etc., for in truly finding their calling, agency and connection in the world, they will develop their unique understanding of God.


Mimi Farb teaches beit midrash and ulpan at The Idea School.

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