While watching Jon Stewart's final appearance as the host of The Daily Show, as well as thinking about the influence he has clearly had on American society and politics over 16 years, I was struck by the fact that the show itself is a statement and a sign of the kind of freedom that we have in this country. In many parts of the world it would not be possible to have a show, such as The Daily Show, skewering politicians and making fun of those in power. It would be shut down immediately and the presenters and those involved with it would be severely punished. But in our society, The Daily Show is one of those signs of our freedom and the freedom of speech that we have.
This week’s Torah portion is very concerned with the freedom that the Israelites have acquired for themselves. It begins with the idea that they have a choice between choosing blessing or curse. And then it continues by talking about what happens when an Israelite becomes a servant or a slave, and how that should be handled.
Towards the very end of the Torah portion, it reminds us of the three foot festivals – Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot – when the Israelites would traditionally go to the temple in Jerusalem to celebrate. When looking at these festivals, as always, Shavuot appears without a date. Instead we are told you shall count off 7 weeks, start to count the 7 weeks when the cycle is first put to the standing grain. And then we’re told, you shall observe the feast of weeks for Adonai your God, offering your free will contribution according to Adonai your God and the way that God has blessed us. We are told that we should rejoice with every member of our society and then we are told, bear in mind that you were slaves in Egypt.
It’s striking that for Shavuot we are told to remember our slavery in Egypt especially as for Pesach, the festival in which we celebrate our Exodus, there is no mention of our remembering our slavery. In reminding us that we were slaves in connection to Shavuot, it might be a sign that the ability to worship God is a symbol of our freedom. It might be that the receipt of Torah is also a symbol of our freedom.
But I wonder if it’s more about the fact that Shavuot is the festival that we come to by counting. It’s the festival where the date is not specified in the Torah and instead we have the obligation to reach to that point. We have the ability to count time and through the counting of time we reach the festival of Shavuot.
For slaves, time is irrelevant. Everyday blends into the next one and the counting of time takes on a meaningless quality. But for free people, everyday matters – everyday counts, because we have the freedom to use it in the way that we choose. In this way Shavuot, the festival that comes with the culmination of a count of 7 weeks is really the festival where we understand and can appreciate the fact that we are free.
For our Israelite community in the wilderness, freedom came from the ability to count time. For us in American society, freedom might come from our ability to make fun of our politicians. Wherever it comes from, the important thing is that we always cherish the freedoms that we have and make sure to protect them.