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Thought for the Day: Shavuot and The Queen’s 90th birthday

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This weekend brings much to celebrate for British Jews as we commemorate the giving of the Ten Commandments and join the nation in marking The Queen’s official 90th birthday. Hear the Chief Rabbi’s thoughts on the importance of shared identity in his Thought for the Day for BBC Radio 4. The full transcript appears below. 

“Often, when meeting people for the first time, we present particular aspects of our identity in search of a personal connection. Who will we be in their eyes? We might mention family, a profession, a faith, perhaps a football club or a political affiliation. These multiple aspects of our identities make us who we are and are the basis of the meaningful relationships we establish with others.

In two days’ time, the Jewish festival of Shavuot, or Pentecost, will commence. Shavuot celebrates identity and belonging. It’s the anniversary of the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, through which Jews were endowed with a spiritual and moral code which would shape our identity for all time.

‘They stood at Mount Sinai like ‘one person with one heart’’

In the Biblical account of the giving of the Decalogue, the entire Israelite nation fascinatingly, is referred to as one single individual. Our Sages explain that they stood at Mount Sinai like ‘one person with one heart’. It was a moment at which the multiple, overlapping identities of each person was woven into a single, complex but beautiful tapestry.

A few months’ ago, I was standing in front of a classroom of pupils in a cramped, makeshift school in the Kalwa slums on the outskirts of Mumbai. My wife and I were on a pastoral visit to 19 Jewish communities in India. We were privileged to be able to spend time at some of the remarkable social responsibility projects which are transforming the lives of so many seriously disadvantaged people living in abject misery and squalor.

‘As citizens of the Commonwealth, we had struck up a connection’

In that classroom, I was desperately looking for a connection that I could strike with my listeners despite the cultural barrier that separated us. They had never heard of Judaism and certainly didn’t know what a Rabbi was. Then, I had an idea. I said to them: “I am from London where the Queen lives.” Immediately, I had their attention. They asked if I had ever seen the Queen and when I replied that I had, there was a collective gasp in the room. As citizens of the Commonwealth, we had struck up a connection; an identity that we shared and could all be proud of.

Over the coming weekend, Jewish communities across the UK are combining their celebration of Shavuot with special events to mark Her Majesty The Queen’s 90th birthday. At street parties, themed teas and special receptions, we will celebrate our Jewishness whilst simultaneously rejoicing in our Britishness, alongside the rest of the nation – ‘like one person with one heart’.”