Shavuot – concealed myths of revelation

May 24, 2023

by Hagar Harpak

Rolling in the hay

In the space between mid-spring and Summer Solstice, between Beltane and Litha, the Jewish tradition celebrates Shavuot. In between the fire festival that delights in the earth’s blossoming fertility, blooming sensuality, and primal pleasure, and the celebration of the longest day of the year, Summer’s beginning, the peak of light, abundance, and beauty, this Jewish holiday feels like a warm breeze that whispers flower into fruit, and spins the earth from the wild passion of the maiden into the radiant pregnant goddess. 

Shavuot means “weeks” in Hebrew, and it also refers to the number seven. Seven weeks after Passover, after, according to the story, Israelites escaped slavery in Egypt, they arrived in Mount Sinai, and received the Torah. But this meaning was most likely only attributed to this holiday later on. 

First and foremost, this was an agricultural celebration. It started as a festival of first fruit and of the reaping of wheat. It’s a pilgrimage holiday (one of three – Passover and Sukkot are the other two), in which the Jews used to walk to Jerusalem and bring offerings of fruit and grain.

I remember the joyful feeling as a kid, of wearing white, making a flower crown, and then rolling in the hay with friends or cousins, the cheese platters and yummy apricots, the delicious blintzes my mama and I made, and most of all, the sweet scent of Summer’s closeness. School’s almost out! WOOHOO!!!!

Growing up secular, I paid very little attention, if any, to the revelation of the Torah aspect of this holiday. And I still prefer to focus on some cashew cheese, a juicy peach, and a flower crown. But because I am secular, and love me a good metaphor, I’ve been thinking of what it could mean for someone to receive and to generate, to make a sacred relationship with ethical guidelines, and with definition of identity. 

The story of Shavuot is the story of Ruth – a Moabite woman, married to an Israelite man who traveled to Moab because of the famine with his brother, his mother, and his father. The father and the two sons die. Naomi, who is now a childless widow, wants to go back to Bethlehem (which means House Of Bread). She discourages her daughters in law from coming with her, but Ruth feels for her mother in law and decides to go with her anyway. 

Ruth takes a job gathering grain in a field, in order to sustain herself and Naomi. She’s a cutie, and the owner of the field, Boaz, notices her. He tells his people to treat her well. He also places her among his female workers, making sure the other men in the field stay away from her. She sits next to him during lunch and he keeps giving her grain. It’s pretty obvious the guy wants her to gather his seed.

When Ruth comes home with wheat and barley, Naomi is onto what’s happening in the sunkissed fields, and she’s into it. 

Later on, when harvest is over, Naomi knows that she cannot send Ruth over to Boaz, and that they must wait for him to come for her. But what are the chances? He’s a fancy land owner, and Ruth is a poor girl. 

Naomi is not a Diva, but she is a female version of a Hustla. She instructs Ruth to dress up, anoint herself and go to the field where Boaz is asleep at night, guarding the grain piles, to uncover his feet, to lie down, and to follow his lead. 

The threshing floor in biblical stories stands for separation and revelation. It’s where the grain is revealed as it is separated from the part that is no longer needed. 

Ruth arrives at the threshing floor and follows her mother-in-law’s instructions. Boaz wakes up trembling to find Ruth lying down next to him. “Woo are you?” he asks. And she says: “I am Ruth, your handmaid. Spread your wings over your handmaid, for you are a redeemer.”

In the book The Hebrew Priestess, Jill Hammer and Taya Shere explain that this story is an ancient ritual the kings of Sumer performed with the priestesses of Inanna, who among other things was a goddess of earth, and protector of the harvested grain. The king represented the grain. The priestess embodied the goddess of the earth. Their sexual union stood for the land’s fertility. Boaz in this story is the king, and indeed, he is the grandfather of king David’s line. Ruth is the priestess, the goddess, the earth. 

I cannot help but reflect on how this is the story of Shavuot – a holiday that celebrates the revelation of the teachings that are said to distinguish the Jewish people from other cultures around them. I cannot help but think about how our individuality is never separate from the land we live on. And how our identity is never not in relationship with other people, other cultures, other beings, and the cycles of nature. 

We can go down to the threshing floor of life and separate the seed from the straw. We might be able to reveal something meaningful, important, and deep, something that lives in the core of our being. But its identity is never in separation. What we make with it, what then becomes of it, how it relates itself and how we connect it to what’s around us continues to give it its character, its meaning, and its value. Where it comes from never leaves its identity either. Our present is always entangled with our past and our future. It is commingled and ever becoming. 

The seed must be planted again, or turned to flour and then to bread. Tradition, culture, thought, and identity are always in relationship with the land, the plants, the animals, and other people. Even the straw, which on the threshing floor is thought of as that which is no longer needed, in fact, serves a purpose. 

As I move through this space between my atheist thinking, my sacred secularism, my deep roots in yoga and South Indian mythic spirituality, the presence of pagan perspective that breathes through me, being born in Israel, being NOT a zionist, living in California, on land taken from the Tongva people, and being the Jew-witch mama that I am, I cannot help but seeing this fabric of existence as the grain, the land, the straw, the priestess, the king, the goddess, the harvest, the planting, the plant… I cannot help but see the woven together tapestry as one that cannot be untangled.

I breathe the complexity in. 

In this complex weaving, I can see the injustices, I can feel the rage and the sadness. In this space I can contemplate what it means to be a person in the world today, and only imagine what it was to be a person in other times. In this entanglement, I can question, doubt, wonder, consider ways of reparation, instead of separation, and breathe. In this space of inseparable existence, I can ponder identity and collectivity, fluidity, shapeshifting, and the fertility of an earth that has been hosting us humans for a pretty short period of time. 

The revelation? Life, the earth, the cosmos – it is all so much bigger than us. And yet, isn’t it amazing that we can contemplate it? Isn’t it mind-blowing that we participate in it? 

Happy Shavuot! 

As we move into the season of Summer, you’re gonna want to join us for the Summer Solstice Somatic Ceremony and explore the seasonal shift through a mythopoetic lens, and bring it into your body with a powerful, meaningful, multilayered ritual. All the details are here. See you there!

And since we’ve mentioned reparations… please join the Missing Witches project and their reparations fundraiser – donate to Indigenous Women Shelters by the end of this month to join an incredible movement. Details are here.

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