Ten Days, Four Festivals

Ramadan, Memorial Day, Shavuot, Pentecost:

Are We Open to the Challenges they Pose?

We are approaching four Festivals:

The month of Ramadan begins this Friday evening, It is sacred to Muslims as a time of inner spiritual attunement and of fasting from dawn to sunset to intensify that focus.  In its midst comes the Night of Power, recalling the moment when the Revelation of the Holy Quran came to the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him.

The Jewish festival of Shavuot (beginning Tuesday night) was lifted up in the biblical Earth-based tradition as a celebration of the spring wheat harvest. For the Rabbis, bereft of connection to any specific land, it became a celebration of harvesting Words instead of Wheat: a celebration of the Revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai.

Long ago, Jewish tradition added the reading of the Book of Ruth as an important part of celebration of the Giving of Torah. In that book, an outsider – a foreigner from a despised nation, penniless, an immigrant, a woman bereft of the social norm of  a male protector – is welcomed to glean a livelihood by literally gleaning grain from the fields held by a wealthy man, Boaz.

The Torah requires that she be supported in that way, since the land itself can be held by a person but is really “owned” only by the Divine Breath of Life, the Interbreathing Spirit of the world. And that Breath of Life that freed the people from slavery insists that no one be left bereft and starving.

Ruth goes beyond all sexual conventions by initiating a relationship with the land-holder; he responds to her by offering marriage. Together, the story says, they become the ancestors of King David and therefore, mythically, the forebears of the Messiah. The teaching of the Harvest becomes simultaneously physical—the gathering of wheat and of sexual union;  social – the gathering of justice and compassion; and theological – the welcoming of an outsider into the heart of Torah’s future.

On Monday, in the United States we honor the dead of many wars through Memorial Day. The custom began in the bloodshed and heartbreak of the Civil War, which became the War to End Slavery. Despite the ambiguities and ambivalences that arise in every war, honoring the soldiers who “died to set men free” set a standard for the American future that has sometimes, but not always, been honored honorably.

And on the Sunday next, June 4, Christians celebrate Pentecost. It grew from Shavuot, when a group of Jews who had become followers of the crucified Jesus and had gathered for that festival were imbued with the Holy Spirit – the Interbreathing that pervades every language and all life. They found themselves able to speak and hear in many tongues, making possible a church that transcended languages and cultures.

 In this multi-Festival moment, we Americans –- Jews, Christians, Muslims, adherents of many other faith-traditions, and followers of the civil-religious patterns that include Memorial Day -- —find ourselves confronted with a challenge to all these values.

Let us ask ourselves the questions these Festivals pose, if we were to take them seriously.

For Muslims during Ramadan:

Do we take seriously the passages of Holy Quran that teach:

"Corruption has appeared on the land and in the sea because of what the hands of humans have wrought. This is in order that We give them a taste of the consequences of their misdeeds that perhaps they will turn to the path of right guidance." (30:41)


“ O humankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may deeply understand each other [not that you may despise each other]. (49:13)

What are we doing to heal the Earth that has been wounded by human greed? What are we doing to affirm and act on our respect for other communities, and to prevent the murders of "despicable others" that have erupted from some who claim Islam as their community?  Have we applied these standards not only to bands of terrorists but also to governments that fly a flag, possess an air force,  and are members of the UN?

For Americans during Memorial Day:

 Are we sending our young to war for oil and our own power, not for freedom? Are we focused on using our power to free people, to end racism and other forms of slavery, rather than  to reward those who spend billions to buy weapons of war from our own businesses? 

For Jews during Shavuot:

Are we celebrating immigrants to America as intrinsically crucial to our society and sacred to God?  Are we welcoming into the land and livelihoods of Israel those who flee famine or oppression, as Ruth was welcomed?  Are we acting to welcome and free “foreigners” who live on what is both their own land and land we claim as ours, instead of subjugating them with our armed force?  Are we making sure that the penniless –- within and beyond the Jewish community -- have access to a livelihood? Are we honoring unconventional sexuality, and the gifts of “nasty” and “persistent” women?

For Christians during Pentecost:

 Are we respecting breakthroughs of spiritual truth in many unexpected tongues and cultures? Are we acting to prevent those in power from torturing and killing people on our streets and in our prisons? Are we making sure that the laws do not discriminate against the homeless and the jobless and the poor and the “others”? Are we making sure that the innocent are not imprisoned and that no one is executed?

The four awesome Festivals of this moment arise from moments of spiritual depth that celebrate the lives of extraordinary “ordinary” human beings. Have we boxed these moments into remembering them by rote? Or are we lifting them “by heart,” truly by heart? To bring the Spirit breathing fresh in every moment?



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