“Moses spoke to the children of Israel, ‘Thus said the Lord: I love you. And all I ask is that you love me in return, and show the world how to do the same.’”
Millenia later, Jews around the world celebrate the occasion of this momentous revelation with … cheesecake?
It’s all about the branding. As Jews, symbols and rituals shape the experience of our festivals and holidays. The recognizable and often tangible and experiential aspects of these special days on our calendar add to the meaning and importance we assign them. The piercing blast of the shofar leaves an imprint on our hearts; the rustling of the lulav branches or the breeze that cuts through the sukkah remind us of our vulnerability and trust in a power greater than us; the tastes and sounds of the annual Passover seder create memories that define our identities. We play with dreidels and wear costumes. But … cheesecake?
The holiday that celebrates the love between God and the Jewish people goes largely unnoticed. Passover is celebrated as the birth of a nation; Shavuot, however, following seven weeks after Passover, is the birth of the Jewish nation. It is the time we remember that moment at Mount Sinai when God revealed God’s self to the assembled people through the utterance of the Ten Commandments; God and the Jewish people enter into a covenanted relationship. God shows God’s love for us by giving the Torah, God’s most precious gift; in return, we vow to love God and to follow God’s ways. How do we celebrate? With cheesecake.
Maybe it’s the time of year as we wish away the end of spring and speed towards summer, as we head into graduation season and finals, as we just had the Passover seders and a Yizkor service less than 2 months earlier.
Maybe it’s that we don’t really know how to celebrate love.
When Rabbi Drill and I counsel couples in advance of a wedding, we have them prepare what I call a “relationship inventory.” Each of the partners reflects on the nature of the relationship, what brought them together, how their relationship has evolved, where they envision it going. The exercise is not easy. It requires honesty and reflection. It evokes memories and emotion. I recommend to the couple that they engage in this practice every year on their anniversary as a way of celebrating and renewing their covenant of love.
Shavuot asks of us the same. Can we stand in the sanctuary hearing the words of the Ten Commandments being read from the Torah and NOT be moved? Can we remember the Israelites falling back at the sound of God’s voice —amidst the thunder and lighting, and the mountain seemingly ablaze—without a sense of awe? Can we read the ancient words that have served as the basis for civilized societies for centuries and not feel pride that we were the ones to share it with the world?
The synagogue calendar for the year ahead is being assembled now. The calendar of our Festivals is waiting for us to incorporate into our Google calendar: Rosh Hashanah 9/25-27; Yom Kippur 10/4-5; Sukkot 10/9-18; Passover 4/5-13.
Our holiday celebrating the gift of divine love, Shavuot, falls on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday of Memorial Day weekend of 2023, 5/25-27. There will be cheesecake. There will be Yizkor. Far above and beyond all that, there will be Torah … and love.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
More accurately, I recall those occasions when I was old enough to appreciate the question as a recurring joke. After all, at that point of my life the signs along the way had become familiar: the Howard Johnson’s off the Merritt Parkway; the Charter Oak Bridge bypassing Hartford; the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike; the ramp onto Route 128. Even as a child, I knew how long was the trip, and what was the time of our estimated arrival. And I’d certainly recognize my grandparents’ driveway on West Roxbury Parkway to know we had arrived.
In the second month of the second year of the Israelites’ wandering, they do not yet know that they will be destined to wander forty years. I can imagine the children asking with each leg of the journey, “Are we there yet?” Even with the commandments as a guide, new rituals for drawing near to God, and the structure of a community that encamped as one, I imagine a lingering uncertainty that gnawed at even the most faithful. After all, so many of those commandments were given to be observed in the Promised Land; when would we get a chance to put them into practice?
In these days of confusion and uncertainty, I am reminded of that child in the backseat, before the question was posed for a laugh. Impatient, cooped up, unable to measure the passage of time, his anxiety is compounded by the fact that there seem to be no lanes on the road; that every driver is traveling at a speed of their own choosing, changing lanes at will; and that we are all supposedly heading towards the same destination with no one actually knowing its address.
As we approach the holiday of Shavuot and the celebration of receiving Torah, I appreciate more than ever the teaching of the Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz of Prague, 1550-1619), who offered that the Torah avoids explicitly naming Shavuot as the occasion of the Torah’s giving so that we may view every day as the day of revelation. Reflecting from the backseat of this journeying vessel, I question whether the destination does in fact lie somewhere ahead of us. What if this pandemic signifies a moment in time when we are asked to redefine the priorities of our lives, to reexamine the use of our resources, and to reconsider the distribution of our wealth? What if this is the moment of revelation to prepare us for future pandemics and crises that will confront humanity more than once each century? What if this is the time to which Torah speaks with more meaning and relevance than ever before?
Perhaps this is not a grim view of the future. Perhaps it is the opportunity to see Torah operate more fully in our lives. Perhaps it is our chance to shape a world of compassion and caution, of empathy and equality; a world that necessitates the constant navigation of risks and benefits, of conscious living; a world of respect for personal boundaries and concern for the boundaries set by others.
Perhaps we are already there.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your accounting will make fifty days. — Vayikra 23: 15 – 16
When it was time to count the first day of the Omer, I was not at a second night seder. I was not standing with family and friends, turning to the final pages of the Haggadah and reciting the blessing and counting for the first time this year. I did count the first day of the Omer, but I was prone on an emergency room bed, felled by an intense case of what turned out to be pancreatitis.
Ever the optimist, I expected the nurse to tell me I was being discharged. Instead, she told me that something had been detected on my pancreas and I was being admitted into the hospital. Day One of the Omer. A new reality began.
I have not missed counting each day of the Omer since. No carelessness, no jumping up out of bed half asleep because I had forgotten, no catching up the morning after to save the pattern in the nick of time. Blessing and counting became serious business for me this year because the days of the Omer have entirely encompassed this strange odyssey in my life. From Day One through Day Forty-Nine (which will be counted tonight) I have experienced unexpected illness, a shocking diagnosis, major surgery, the unexpected death of my brother, a limited ability to fulfill the mitzvah of shiva, learning protocols for chemotherapy, and rising up from shiva and shloshim with the onset of Shavuot.
Certainly, the coincidence of time cannot be ignored. Certainly, there was much for me to learn along the way as I counted diligently each night and wondered what the new day would bring.
The Omer beat out a consistent rhythm for me. Do not despair. Count each day. There are blessings present in every single moment.
I know that life is not easy. Faith is a challenging, ephemeral thing to hold. But despite my training in the world of yogic philosophy, I have never accepted that life is about suffering. Despite the many sorrowful experiences I have shared with cherished congregants, I believe that life is in the joy despite the sadness. And though we struggle with faith, God is always right there for us, just one request for help away.
To me, life is not a battle. Life is a precious gift and sometimes we are challenged by illness and loss to hold on to that primary Jewish belief. The Omer helped me remember each day that life is a gift.
Throughout this Omer period, God has felt entirely present to me. My son-in-law, Sagi, asked me a profound question. He wanted to know if I was acting strong and whole or if I was feeling strong and whole. I explained that the way I am behaving is because of how I feel – held by family, friends and community, and most of all, held by God. I am strong and whole.
I have found that God is present at all times. I broke down completely one of the first nights in the hospital. Rather than receive any positive results at all, I was instead receiving worse and worse news. I gave in to my fears and grief, lay in my bed weeping for all that I was going to miss. I railed against God, asking why I had to have cancer when I have so much to do, so many ways to serve God, and so many family obligations to fulfill. I asked God, “How can I do this without You?”
Just as I was drying my tears and collecting myself, my kind nurse Nadine came in to check on me. “Oh, my dear,” she comforted. “What is the matter and why are you so sad?” I told her about the diagnosis I had received that afternoon. She huffed a bit at my news, looked me straight in the eye and began to preach. “You are one of the Children of Abraham, you are God’s chosen child and God will not let you falter. Remember that God loves you and is with you. I know you have great faith. God has great faith in you.” I wish that I could remember all that Nadine told me that evening. She was speaking to me from another faith tradition but it was clear to me as I looked into her compassionate, beautiful face that she was my angel, delivering to me the answer from God for which I had just been praying.
As it turned out, the pancreatitis that was so painful (and inconvenient, happening on the first day of Pesach) was also my personal miracle. If I had not had such an acute case of the inflammation that sent “stubborn me” to the Emergency Room after a day of “waiting for it to pass,” the small, encapsulated tumor at the head of my pancreas would not have been found.
I will stand by my certainty that I was blessed by God with a miracle. I will not try to defend this belief theologically because it is indefensible. Why should I receive a miracle and not the patient in the next hospital bed? Why would a murderer potentially receive the same miracle as me if this were all part of God’s special gift to me? God is neither cancer nor oncology. I know. It is indefensible. Yet it is true for me. God granted me a miracle for which I am grateful.
I have learned also that the power of prayer and positive energy is a curative. I have read research, studied Jewish texts and taught about the power of prayer. Now, I have experienced it for myself. My healing has not been easy, but it has progressed faster than one might expect. The Circle of Psalms of congregants and friends has had a profound impact on me, reminding me that I am surrounded by love. Each evening at 7:30 when I read Psalm 121, I wonder who else is reciting a psalm. I am always buoyed by the thought of just how many have joined with me in that moment. When I told my surgeon, Dr. Langan that many people were praying for his wisdom and steady hands, he responded, “That means so much to me. I have been praying for you too.”
And then, in a startling confluence of time, on my first day home after surgery, we received the shocking news that my brother Dr. Eric Mack z”l had died in his home in California. I was unable to fully ingest the reality, manage any of the decisions that needed to be made, travel to Maine for the funeral or sit in a complete shiva. In case I had any final reservations about the need to protect myself and care for myself first through this period of time, losing Eric was a complete and final lesson in this regard. I had no choice. I had to choose life – my own life.
Eric’s greatest joy in his later years was sharing insights into the weekly Torah portion with his fellow congregants at his shul, Etz Hadar in Redlands, something that he and I would discuss almost every week. How appropriate that the shiva for my brother and my days of mourning as his sister come to a completion just as we rise up tomorrow evening, for the holiday of Shavuot, to receive the Torah at Sinai. This year, Revelation will feel especially sweet with one more student of Torah studying at God’s Table for the holiday.
I will never again take for granted the mitzvah of counting the days of the Omer. We count up to remind us to cherish every day. Despite the great trials of these seven weeks, I have indeed felt every day heightened by gratitude and blessing. The world has felt more beautiful, people have seemed kinder, and love has seemed to be present in every moment. I have felt truly held by God.
As we all step forward toward Revelation at Sinai, may we be ready to enter into relationship with God. May we be willing to serve God with our gifts and blessings. May our hearts be open to miracles and prayer and Torah. May we always be kind.
Chag sameach, Happy holiday,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
When this past Saturday turned into Sunday, it was the first day of the holiday of Shavuot. We had finished counting 49 days since Passover. It was time to receive Torah. Together with about eighty congregants, I was cozy in the synagogue, studying words of Torah in groups of four, eating coffee ice cream with chocolate sprinkles.
When the sun rose on a new day, I was sleeping for a few hours before holiday services began again at 9:00 a.m. I was a bit groggy as I began chanting the blessings of the morning, but I felt happy and fulfilled in one of my favorite holidays, when we would be celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. I was blissfully unaware of the outside world.
When this past Saturday turned into Sunday in Orlando, Florida, a mad man whose soul was poisoned with hatred and a fanatical view of life was holding more than 100 people hostage in a nightclub intended as a gathering place for celebration. While I was studying words of Torah, he was shooting 49 people dead and wounding 53 others. In the morning, the world that was attached to media started reeling from the news of yet another mass murder, another act of terrorism, a horrifying targeting of the LGBTQ community, an attempt to bring down the joy of Pride Month.
As Saturday turned to Sunday, I was discussing the meaning of: “You shall be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.” In my havruta (study group), we thought that if we could possibly agree on a definition of holiness, we would know exactly what God expects of humanity and particularly of Jews. We would have the key to making our world a better place. At 1:30 in the morning on Sunday, it all felt so simple and uplifting. And all the while, a terrorist was shooting people dead.
How can there possibly be any sense in the world? How can God possibly expect us to be holy?
Since Sunday, people I have spoken with want to know how goodness can possibly matter in the face of evil. My stubborn answer is that goodness is the only thing that does matter.
Every act of kindness takes away the power of hatred and cruelty. I refuse to become a nihilist or a pessimist. Being an optimist is not frivolous or naïve or weak. Being an optimist in days like these requires immense courage.
Author Rebecca Solnit says: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it is going to take everything you have to steer the world away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and from the grinding down of the poor and marginal.”
This past Sunday, the Jewish people celebrated Shavuot, the Festival of Revelation. In our all night study at the OJC, Rabbi Scheff taught that creation and revelation lead us toward redemption. Redemption will not fall out of the heavens above. The promise of redemption is in our hands, and it is what keeps us moving forward with optimism and hope, believing against all odds that we can repair the world. Join me please. Act by act, moment by moment, we can bring redemption to a world desperately in need of repair.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill