In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi pointed to a paradox. There are billions upon billions of stars in the observable universe, many of which, astronomers have discovered, have planets in orbit around them. Based on their size and position, these planets are likely candidates to have liquid water and, consequently, some form of life. Given the – literally – astronomical numbers of stars, intelligent extraplanetary life should approach a level of certainty. Theoretically, interstellar space should be filled with all kinds of communication signals and interplanetary voyagers. And yet neither have yet to be discovered. Probability itself suggests that some contact with other life forms should have already happened. Instead, when a remote speck of matter 1,200 light years away is observed by scientists who have dubbed it Kepler 62, anticipation builds that perhaps thiis planet will be the one to demonstrate we are not alone. But if the number of potential civilzations “out there” is so great, Fermi asked, where is everybody?
“Where is everybody?” is not just a cosmological question. It is also a Jewish question…and a demographical question. Shavu’ot is a major Jewish holiday; arguably the most important Jewish holiday. True, Passover commemorates the freedom of the ancient Israelites and serves as the foundational event of Jewish history. But it was at Sinai, where the Torah was given on Shavu’ot, that a collection of liberated slaves was transformed into a people; a people constrained to live within an ordered and life-governing system. If the observance of Torah is what distinguishes Judaism from its daughter religions, it is Shavu’ot that marks the difference. To be sure, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are the most widely attended holidays. But popularity is not identical to importance. That is why going to synagogue on Shavu’ot is, in a way, depressing.
Look around. There are more empty seats than people. And the number of young people, particularly in non-Orthodox synagogues, is miniscule. Part of the explanation lies in the fact that any Jewish holiday that falls mid-week is going to be under-attended. The many conflicts between professional and religious obligations make this so. And part of the explanation lies in the fact that synagogue attendance is in general decline, very much like refelective of the decline in Church attendance. And part of the explanation lies in the fact that when the weather is nicer, Jews who take off from their daily routine are more likely to spend four hours of their day outdoors than in the synagogue. Yet there is no denying that the scarcity of Jews celebrating Shavu’ot in their respective synagogues is attributable to the low profile of the holiday itself. As much as the holiday of Shavu’ot is central to Judaism, it has never captured the Jewish religious imagination. (Interestingly, unlike almost all other holidays, there is no Talmudic tractate devoted to the celebration of Shavu’ot.) Were it not for the Yizkor (Memorial) Service on the Second Day, Shavu’ot might very well elapse with hardly a notice.
How to change all this is a challenge. Many years ago I ruminated on how much Judaism would be different if Shavu’ot fell in December and Hanukkah in June. But short of re-arranging the Jewish calendar, an operation with neither precedent nor sanction, Shavu’ot must be re-invested with meaning. Rather than the Festival of the Giving of the Torah, Jews must make Shavu’ot the time of Receiving the Torah. And the place to receive the Torah – vicariously – is in the synagogue.