Parshat Shavuot

By Rabbi Joshua Hoffman, AJRCA President

Extraordinarily Ordinary

This year, a pivotal book was published called The Good Life. The authors, Drs. Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, are the current directors of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest scientific study of happiness.  Among the profound insights gleaned from surveys collected over two and sometimes three generations of participants, the authors share one reflection that can inspire us all as the Shavuot holiday begins. Reflecting upon the participants, they write, “Leo DeMarco…thought of himself primarily in relation to others – his family, his school…and he is generally considered to be one of the Study’s happiest men. But when one of Harvard’s researchers interviewed Leo in middle age, she wrote, “I came away from our visit with the impression that the subject was well…somewhat ordinary.” (Waldinger, Schulz, 35)

The happiest person can be the most ordinary person, according to the findings. Unlike our instinct to pursue happiness as some goal or accomplishment to attain, the authors surmise that a good life is synonymous with good relationships. While this one participant who thinks of himself in relation to others may seem ordinary, his ability to define himself by the quality of those relationships is extraordinary.

It’s reasonable that the people in our lives will positively or negatively affect our choices, our outlook, and even our spirituality.  Moreover, most of us question our relationships from time to time hoping to discover that what we see in ourselves glows in the reflection of the people around us. Much of religious life is focused on this hopeful discovery, not only in our relationships to other people, but also in our relationship to what we call God.

We’re about to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, a time in the history of the Jewish people that was anything but ordinary. The Torah text illuminates the scene with shofar blasts and smoke topped mountains while the commanding voice of God reverberates throughout the world, or at least within earshot of Mt. Sinai. We stand to receive the Torah, a sacred text that feels more precious because it was given with supernatural force. We experience this moment as if we cannot be in relation to it, that it was too powerful a moment to make any connection other than in total awe. And yet, year after year, generation after generation, we stand while the words are recited anew. The awe and grandeur of the Torah is indeed unique, but the message is and remains simple. Torah is the medium through which we build and sustain holy relationships.

The Aseret HaDibrot – the ten utterances that echo from Mt. Sinai throughout the generations, are entirely focused on relationship building. They remind us of the foundations for a relationship with God. They affirm that how we influence the world around us and how the world influences us is best mediated through mitzvot and middot – through actions and thoughts that honor human dignity and human potential.

As we celebrate this holiday, whether with a bite of cheesecake or a text in hand, may we all enjoy the good life with good relationships to each other and with God.