Monday, May 15, 2006

A Worshipful Shavuot Gift for Yourself?

In Deuteronomy 14:22-26, we read that an Israelite household would spend most of its tithes on itself, on food to celebrate the pilgrimage festival. The surplus went to the Temple for its maintenance, charitable work, and priests.

The congregation does this model of tithing very well for two of the three pilgrimage festivals, Pesach and Sukkot, when congregants often invite each other to each other's houses during these many-day-long festivals. This seems more scriptural than planning a huge congregational event that requires a lot of time and energy and work.

But we don't really do this model of tithing with Shavuot. In part this is because Shavuot is the only one-day pilgrimage festival: there just isn't much time to party. It is also only 50 days after the previous pilgrimage festival, and for many of us 10% of our increase during 50 days is not a lot of money.

Can something be done? So far I only have one idea which seems sensible even after I pray about it. :-)

I notice that a theme of Shavuot is how God gives us gifts, specifically the Torah and his Holy Spirit. And I notice that in America we don't really need a day to eat more, nor do we necessarily feel more celebratory when we eat more, but we do tend to have trouble accepting generosity and feel more celebratory when we get presents.

So I'm wondering if it would be appropriate, for Shavuot, to spend from what we have set aside to tithe about a meal's cost on a "splurge" that would help us spend time with God but we have been putting off as not within our budgets. Examples might include a certain worship music CD, or a prayerbook, or a book about Jewish theology or philosopy or poetry.

This would not work well if it became simply an excuse to go shopping. It would become a corrupted idea if it happened annually and people began to think, "I won't get this now, because I can get it as my Shavuot splurge."

But if the focus could be kept on unearned generosity -- on the certain type of gratitude we feel when we receive a nice gift that we never imaged we would receive -- then it would be a worthwhile custom.

Ideally there would be some element of surprise. Neither the Torah nor the Holy Spirit we gift of the type the Jewish people at that time were expecting. Maybe I should send the bookstore from which I order worship music CDs a list of the ones I own, and ask them to use my check to buy me a staff favorite that I don't already have... It would not work to have people get each other something (except for maybe parents for children) since that could get awkward.

What do others think?

UPDATE: Some people have replied wondering whether it might work after all to give such gifts to each other.

At our congregational Shavuot celebration we will have a "Favorite Scripture Verse Gift Exchange". Each person will bring a favorite scripture verse written out. (This might be done in a fancy manner, but that is not required.) The verses will be put on a table and then we'll take turns claiming each other's verses according to the rules of a "White Elephant Gift Exchange", with people explaining when they take a verse why it is meaningful to them.

Thus we are already planning an activity in which we give gifts to each other, in a manner that directly celebrates God giving us the Torah while eliminating any monetary cost of gifts. So it seems to me a needless risk of social awkwardness to have people get other gifts for each other.