Many of us have lived without in-person community for over two months now. How does this bode for our experience of Shavuot this year?
The Israelites stood at Mt. Sinai “כאיש אחד בלב אחד” — as one person with one heart. This image describes unity — a single person with shared intention. And whether people at the original revelation were actually able to achieve this, it is nearly impossible for people to share the same intention even when they participate in shared action. We have many hearts –many reasons for being at Sinai, even if our presence seems uniform. Some come to receive the Torah out of religious faith — and even then, some focus more on interpersonal religiosity, some on devotional religiosity between human beings and God — others out of family loyalty, curiosity, nostalgia, and some came with one idea in mind only to arrive for another reason. The list is infinite. And yet, we appear at Sinai annually as one to receive the Torah on Shavuot through our communal commemorations.
The phenomenon of creating a sense of shared reality, even if, internally, we are all of different minds, is borne of what Adam Seligman calls the “ritual self.” The ritual self is who we are when we perform repeated acts that are shared within a group or a society. The ritual self is not always about religion: for instance, when we ask someone “how are you?” whether we want to know or not, that is the ritual self in action. We are participating in an activity that means something in our community, even though we cannot know how much we share under the surface. What am I feeling during that shared action? What are others who share in it feeling? No one knows exactly how others feel or what they think in those moments. And yet, we are content to share the performance with each other because we all value it. It is good enough to be כאיש אחד, like one body — offering external uniformity. The rest remains ambiguous.