|A series on the holidays, brought to you by The Deep Ecumenism Initiative|
by Hazzan-Maggid Steve Klaper
Starting on the second day of Passover, traditional practice requires Jews to begin counting seven weeks, 49 days, which conclude with the celebration of the festival of Shavuot [weeks]. Originally an agricultural holiday, the idea of counting each day came to symbolically represent spiritual preparation and anticipation for the receiving of the Torah; just as we go from coarse barley flour to fine wheat flour, so do we refine ourselves spiritually to receive the Word of God on Shavuot.
As it happens, beginning with Easter Sunday, Christians also begin marking the days, 50 in all, which comprise the Easter Season, culminating in the festival of Pentecost [fiftieth]. This seven-week process came to be called Mystagogy [to lead through the mysteries], a period of introspection and spiritual refinement, culminating in the receiving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
We can never be certain as to the exact nature of the events on Mount Sinai, 3,500 years ago – 50 days after leaving Egypt – or in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago – 50 days after the Rebbe from Galilee left the body. Clearly something momentous happened in both cases — something grand enough and mind-blowing enough that the memory of these events grew into legendary stories that have only grown bigger and more all-encompassing as they made their way through the centuries.
It is pleasant to imagine that, 50 days after the “Last Supper” Passover seder, the – at the time, still Jewish – disciples of Jesus were engaged in the observance of Shavuot when they experienced the gift or descent of the Holy Spirit. Jesus promised that they would receive the Ruach HaKodesh [Holy Spirit] to aid them after he was gone [John 14:26], so they were in fact expecting something, and what more auspicious moment could there be than the evening commemorating the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Note that the term “Ruach HaKodesh” is also the biblical term for prophecy.
Jesus said that this Ruach HaKodesh “already lives with you and is in you,” [John 14:17]. So, notwithstanding the big event in the “upper room” where it happened, everyone should, by rights, be able to access their own internal “upper room.” Everyone. Forever.
We live in a world where it would be advantageous for us to find ways to visit our own personal upper room from time to time. This would allow us a bit of spiritual focus, to quiet the stress and anxiety of modern life, if only for a little while. The problem is, we no longer really know how to get there. There is a lot of noise keeping us from locating our upper room. Sometimes praying, meditating, hiking, or making art or music just doesn’t work. Over the centuries, the religious rituals designed to draw us closer, to deepen our focus, have become watered down to rote repetition, and so they no longer serve the purposes for which they were devised. They are dismissed now as “organized religion,” not “real spirituality.”
Of course, there have always been moments of unplanned upper-room-itude. We sense this sometimes; a moment or event that seems out of the ordinary, somehow brighter, more present. Wondrous moments sometimes simply happen without our volition. Moments when memory, nostalgia, or deja vu jog us into another state of mind, another way of feeling, of sensing. The Japanese call this state Yugen. At these moments, time seems to move differently, slower, faster, oddly.
At the Passover seder, we are commanded to tell the Exodus story as an event that happens now and forever, thus bending time, suggesting that we are always being redeemed. Jesus says, “…treat the least of my [children] as you would me, and I am with you always,” [Matthew 25:40]. In the language of Biblical Hebrew, past and future are grammatically linked — time is a continuous present.
At Mount Sinai, we are taught that pathways were imprinted on our souls, pathways for making sense of an ever-unfolding revelation. The future thus pulls us into this continuous present and the “feast to come” that Jesus promises is already and not yet. The disciples in that upper room on Pentecost, just like the Israelites at Mount Sinai before them, received exactly what they needed to receive in that Kairos [auspicious or right time] moment.
This Ruach HaKodesh, this Holy Spirit, is a call to service, a call to action. Before Mount Sinai, the Israelites were just a collection of tribes following Moses in a wild escape from slavery. After Mount Sinai they became a nation — now they were on a mission! Before the upper room experience, the Apostles were merely students, the Chasidim [pious followers] of an extraordinary Rabbi and Prophet. Taking on the mantle of the Ruach HaKodesh meant they were now embarking on something larger, the beginning of a new faith tradition. Why? Because the responsibility of revelation is both to live by it and to pass it on. When you take on that responsibility, you begin living partially out-of-time. A prophet sees the end-game, and calls out moral culpability. To Jesus, temples, sacrifices, and prayers meant nothing while there were still people suffering. And we who follow in these footsteps are called upon to act on that same vision. Having a life-altering experience is only life-altering if it indeed alters our lives!
A.J. Heschel reminds us that Ruach also means pathos [emotion], the moving state of the soul, and so we might ask people, “how is your Ruach HaKodesh, your holy spirit today?” Maybe merely being the “hands of God” is too small an aspiration…
Chag sameach, a blessed Pentecost and a gut yontif!
Hazzan-Maggid Steve Klaper (he/him) is a Jewish troubadour – a spiritual storyteller, minstrel and teacher. An ordained Cantor, Maggid and teacher of Torah, Steve draws upon his Orthodox Jewish roots and over 40 years experience as a professional musician, infusing traditional Jewish teachings with mystical chant and melodies, sacred tales and wisdom from a variety of traditions. As co-founder of the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace, Steve promotes Deep Ecumenism, as an exploration into the ways in which every faith tradition seeks to touch the Mystery. Steve is a member of Yerusha’s Deep Ecumenism Initiative.