Considering covenant

Rabbi Sacks Legacy launches new Shavuot guides based on his teachings

Spiritual leader and sociologist Mijal Bitton says she looked to answer the question of why Jews maintain a connection to God and each other

As Jews around the world prepare to hold a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night study session for this week’s Shavuot holiday, they will have two new resources to consider this year based on the teachings of the late British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

The guides, one written for adults and the other for teenagers, were produced by Rabbi Sacks Legacy this year by two members of the first cohort of Sacks Scholars, a new initiative that officially launches next month, which brings to 27 Jewish academics and educators who had personal connections with Sacks.

Drawing on Sacks’ writing, biblical sources, oral Torah and contemporary writers, Mijal Bitton and Michael Rainsbury created source sheets and study guides to have people consider the significance of receiving the Torah and the covenant between the Jewish people and God. Bitton’s is meant for adults, while Rainsbury’s is geared toward teenagers.

Both guides are available in English, Hebrew, Spanish and French. The teen guide is also available in German. They were written to be accessible, with follow-up questions and “points to ponder.”

“Shavuot is an interesting holiday. I don’t think it’s one of the top holidays for American Jews, who tend to observe Hanukkah or Passover, but I think actually, when it comes to notions of Jewish observance, it’s absolutely critical,” Bitton told eJewishPhilanthropy this week. “This is really the holiday in which the Jewish people were asking not only where they came from, but who they want to be, and what they want to create in the world.”

Though she and Rainsbury did not directly collaborate, he too focused on this concept of covenant, asking, “What Obligates Me To Keep The Torah?”

Bitton, the spiritual leader, or rosh kehila, of Manhattan’s Downtown Minyan and a sociologist of American Jewry, met Sacks five years ago when he was teaching at New York University.

“I had just co-founded a spiritual community in Lower Manhattan. Rabbi Sacks was in the neighborhood and came to our community. I got to know him and his wife, Lady Elaine, and really came to see myself as a student of his,” Bitton said. 

Sacks, who served as chief rabbi of the British commonwealth from 1991 to 2013, was known as a prolific writer, penning dozens of books, as well as regular columns, articles and divrei Torah. He also maintained close relationships with British and Israeli politicians, as well as Jewish leaders around the world. Following Sacks’ death in 2020, his office launched the Rabbi Sacks Legacy Trust, which aims to promote his teachings through various educational initiatives and programs.

“Much of the thought that Rabbi Sacks developed is trying to figure out what it means to be in this covenant with God, and also to help people understand why. Why we should want to invest so much of ourselves in trying to figure out a relationship with God and with these people,” Bitton said.