“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
I love origin stories.
I don’t care what the critics say. Give me Henry Cavill, Tom Welling or Christopher Reeve as Superman. Give me Christian Bale, Val Kilmer or David Mazouz as Batman. Give me Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield or Toby Maguire as Spiderman. Give me Richard Donner or Zack Snyder. Give me Tim Nolan or Christopher Nolan. Give me Sam Raimi or Jon Watts. Give me any of these actors and directors, so long as they are giving me an origin story, and I’m hooked.
And I don’t even mind if the origin stories they deliver are competing in details or factually different. So long as the origin story offers me an insight into what drives my hero‘s motor, I’m hooked. And I can go back for more, again and again.
I find myself far more sympathetic to a character when I know that character’s origin story. I want to understand their roots of insecurities, their foundations of confidence, their source of aspirations. The beauty of the origin stories for me is that the creative interpreters—the writers, actors and directors—are ultimately responsible for dictating how we understand what motivates our favorite characters to act. No choice can made, no action can be taken in the foreground without the origin story hanging in the background.
Adam and Eve, in the Book of Genesis, get two (!) origin stories juxtaposed against each other. I imagine the writer and director getting together to offer two different vantage points from which we can watch the story unfold.
Moses, in the Book of Exodus, is given a detailed origin story, one depicting the harrowing circumstances surrounding his birth, the fateful moment he asserts independence from his assigned station of royalty, and the transformative event that calls him to God’s service.
When it comes Noah and Abraham, —the father of the post-flood human race and the father of the Jewish people, respectively—however, the Torah gives us no origin story. Instead, we’ve relied on the artistic and creative storytelling abilities of rabbis through the centuries to propose the origin stories that would provide greater insight into, understanding of, and appreciation for these towering characters. These origin stories are collected in the body of literature we call The Midrash.
My issue with The Midrash is that, while we have attributed some of these proposed origin stories to great and authoritative voices from our past, we all too often rely on them as if they were written by God God-self or discovered in the text of the Torah. In so doing, we relinquish the opportunity to connect the origin stories of these characters with our own experiences. While at some point in my life I may have smashed my father’s idols on a metaphoric level, I would much rather relate to Abraham‘s story of hearing God‘s voice in his life in the context of my own experience.
It is said of the Torah that she has 70 faces. I prefer that one of those faces be a reflection of my own. In studying the stories of Noah and Abraham, I can wrestle with what it means to be sufficiently righteous in this world to merit saving. I can ponder what sacrifices I would be willing to make in order to perpetuate goodness in this world. I can picture children, parents and spouses struggling to discern God’s willing voice in this world.
In the absence of origin stories for Noah and Abraham, the Torah makes room for my own. This origin story is mine.
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
What if you knew for sure that you would see or hear something unusual? What if you knew for certain that you would experience something extraordinary? Would you miss it?
Oh, I know that Saturday mornings are just right for getting errands done, picking up the dry cleaning or purchasing a new shower curtain. Saturdays are perfect for boot camp workouts, kids’ soccer tournaments, or – on crisp sunny days – hiking in Harriman State Park. On Saturday mornings, you can meet your cousin for coffee or visit your niece after surgery. I know… on Saturdays you can even just sleep in after an over-scheduled week.
But what if being in Shabbat on a Saturday morning promised something that transcends all of that? Would you just skip it?
If you come to synagogue on Saturday morning instead of everything else you do…
Perhaps the davenner* will chant El Adon in a different tune, not the expected tune, but in the one that was sung in your childhood when you sat next to your grandfather in shul.*
Perhaps you’ll watch as five-year-old twins run purposefully down the aisle and onto the bima* at the start of the Torah service to be handed silver Torah crowns which they hold up proudly as if they are the whole point of the service. You definitely find yourself grinning as you watch them walk solemnly behind the adult holding the Torah.
Perhaps you’ll see a proud nonagenarian ascend the bima, slow but sure-footed, to accept an aliyah* and receive a blessing for the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.
Perhaps you’ll see a seven-month-old baby girl receive her Hebrew name on the bima and lean forward to send a big, sloppy toothless grin in the direction of her great- grandmother for whose husband she has just been named.
Perhaps you will rise when the Prayer for Healing is chanted and you will have a clear picture in your mind of your friend who is recuperating from surgery. You will sense that your prayer can reach him in his Boston hospital.
Perhaps you’ll be invited to open the ark when the Torah is placed back there after the recessional and when you look at the colorfully decorated Torahs, the congregation sings Hashivenu, “Return us to the days of old.” And you aren’t sure why, but you feel something in your heart unlock.
Perhaps you’ll see a man chant the haftara* to honor his brother’s yahrzeit* and as you follow in the English, you realize that this story of Jonathan and David from the Book of Samuel was your haftara when you became bat mitzvah. As you pay closer attention, you remember all the words.
Perhaps you’ll sit down next to a woman you don’t know well, but has always reminded you from a distance of your mother. And as you silently tear up, missing your mother so much even after 24 years, this fellow congregant hands you a tissue. And you feel your mother’s soul closer than you have in years.
Perhaps the words of the Dvar Torah* will strike a chord deep within you, answering a question that has been lurking in your mind, an important question not yet articulated.
If any one of these transcendent moments were likely to happen on a Saturday morning, would you just miss it?
Holiness does not arrive with trumpets and drums but with quietly perceived moments.
All of these moments do happen. Will you be there with me to experience them? Life holds the promise of being so much more than our own routine.
A community of holiness awaits you every Saturday at nine. I’ll see you there.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
*Translations so we’re all on the same page:
Davenner – one who is praying, in this case, the one who is leading the prayers.
Shul – a cozy Yiddish word meaning synagogue.
Bima – platform at the front of a synagogue where the Torah service takes place.
Aliyah – the honor of reciting blessings before and after a portion of the Torah (also called an aliyah) is chanted.
Haftara – a section from the Book of Prophets chanted on Shabbat and holiday mornings.
Yahrzeit – the anniversary of the death of a person according to the Jewish calendar.
Dvar Torah – literally, words of Torah, designates a sermon or a teaching given by a rabbi or a knowledgeable person at Shabbat services.
The root of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, can be translated as near or close. Sacrifice, then, is better understood in the biblical context as the way in which we draw near to the Divine. It is an invitation to achieve a sense of intimacy and communion with God. In our modern context, sacrifice is what we offer of ourselves in our attempt to achieve a deeper connection with those people, causes and things about which we are passionate.
Moreover, the fiery passion that may accompany intimacy, if unchecked, can be all-consuming, excluding to others, and costly to the self. When we care passionately about a person or a cause, we may throw ourselves–our emotional energy, our time, our resources–into the relationship. Sometimes we may even go too far in our zeal, forgetting about self-care and about our other priorities, and excluding the voices of others who may share our passions or who may stand in opposition because of their own hierarchy of values.
Relationship requires sacrifice. If we are to achieve true intimacy, we must be ready to give with no expectation of reward, to assume the risk of being hurt or even of hurting another despite our best intentions. We must be prepared to get messy, because the intensity and zeal that can accompany intimacy is not always accompanied by rational behavior.
But sacrifice also requires regulation and control. The failure to curb one’s enthusiasm can lead to disastrous results, harming the parties to the intimacy and those tangentially related. While we may no longer approach God with sacrifices in hand, we must build sanctuaries in our hearts, with altars fed by our purest intentions, upon which we offer our deeds. And as we bring our souls to the altar of intimate connections, may we not lose sight of those around us ready to do the same.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
One of my childhood friends told me that he decided to go to a synagogue for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur so that he could say prayers for my healing. Knowing that he is a non-believing, non-practicing Jewish person, I was very touched by his impulse.
But, I wanted to warn him against his plan. Instead, I let him find his own way.
Afterward, I called him to find out how it went.
He told me, “Honestly, this is why I never go to synagogue. I felt empty and lost and very lonely. I could not understand the prayers and they seemed to go on forever. I was to nervous to even say a prayer for you.”
I was not surprised. I told him, “It is not that synagogues are empty of spiritual space for prayer. As a novice, you just went on the wrong days.”
Trying to find a sense of peace, connection to God, and deep prayer experiences on the three most fearsome, awesome and busy days of the Jewish calendar is like trying to learn to speak French by sitting in on a college literature course taught entirely in French… or trying to learn to ice skate by gliding out onto the ice in the midst of a Stanley Cup playoff match.
And yet my old friend is not the only one who tries to pry open the treasure of Judaism once a year for three days. So many of us come to synagogue just for the High Holy Days, and as a rabbi, believe me, I am very glad to see you.
But every year, just five days after Yom Kippur, we enter the joyous festival of Sukkot and I wonder how to convince my fellow Jews to come on these days instead! We sing praises to God while shaking branches of the palm, myrtle, and willow together with an etrog (a lemon-like fruit). It’s inexplicably awesome! We line up with these agricultural treasures and parade around the synagogue singing to God, “Save us!” It’s crazy fun! Everyone is grinning because no one can exactly explain what we’re doing.
After these prayers, we go outside into a sukkah (a temporary booth) decorated with lights, flowers, fruit, paper chains and posters and partially open to the sky to study, eat and sing. We live in these booths for seven days.
At the end of this lovely festival of connecting to nature, community, and our best selves, we celebrate Simchat Torah (Monday evening 10/1 through Tuesday 10/2), rejoicing as we finish an annual cycle of reading the entire Torah and start again “In the Beginning”. We dance with the Torahs and ensure that everyone gets an honor to the Torah. It’s a raucous Jewish holiday of merriment and true joy.
Attending Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services is meaningful and important. I am not telling you not to do so. But only doing so means that you are missing out on some of the most spiritually connected moments in the Jewish calendar.
Think of it this way:
On Rosh Hashanah your Parent calls you into the study and says: “Let’s just take a look at how you’ve been behaving over the past year and make a plan for you to improve. Perhaps it will help us feel more connected.”
On Yom Kippur, your Parent calls you back into that study and says: “Okay, what have you done about showing some progress over the past 10 days?”
But on Sukkot, your Parent comes out to you in the backyard and says, “Let’s have a great celebration for a week. Let’s enjoy each other’s company and feel close to one another!”
Who would really want the disciplinarian Parent without the celebrating Parent as well?
I’ll take both! I hope you’ll join me.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Place before Me
Your vulnerability and regret
Your wholeness and gratitude
Stand in My presence
With outstretched hands
Offer Me your heart
Do You not recognize the companion of Your soul?
From every stranger, neighbor, friend and lover
In every dawn and dusk
In every breath
where You will find me waiting
I CaLL to You, with a small “a-aleph”
To remind You that I am,
That We are One
In all things
Raise Your body to the heavens
Stretch Your fingers to the skies
Wave Your offering to the universe;
But look to Your palms
I have sacrificed for You
“AND THE LORD CaLLED TO MOSES….” (Leviticus 1:1)
It all started with a ramp, or a lack thereof.
Scotty grew up in the synagogue community, a kid everyone loved. Neither the cerebral palsy diagnosis he received as a baby nor the wheelchair that carried him from his earliest days ever dampened his spirit, his smile, his radiance. Scotty’s determination to play an equal part in our community life demanded so much commitment and effort on his part and that of his family. On the Shabbat morning he celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah, Scotty needed to be lifted in his wheelchair by four family friends up onto the bimah. With each small triumph, and each obstacle overcome, our community celebrated his courage; yet, with each “step” Scotty took, we became more aware of how relatively little we had done, and how far we had to go, to become a truly inclusive community.
In Parashat Ki Tavo, we learn of the Hebrew formula that each Israelite was required to recite upon offering the thanksgiving gift of first fruits in the Promised Land. In one sense, this set liturgy can be seen as unifying and inclusive, creating a ceremony equally accessible and empowering to all. In practice, however, it became clear that not all Israelites could participate in the ceremony in the intended manner. The Mishnah informs us that originally this formula was only to be recited in Hebrew (Sotah 7:2-3). In time, a prompter was provided for those who could not recite the Hebrew. Eventually, to save those individuals in need of prompting the embarrassment of appearing inept, it became standard practice for all to repeat the formula after the prompter (Bikkurim 3:7).
The ramp came first. Then a total redesign of our sanctuary lowered the bimah and brought our podium to the floor. Mezuzot on the bottom halves of our doors; a separate accessible bathroom and remotely activated doors; removable sanctuary seats that will allow space for wheelchairs amongst the congregation, as opposed to being accommodated in a back corner–all these conscious modifications were intended to make our space more welcoming to all. With each step of progress, however, we become more aware of, and sensitive to, the challenges ahead.
In this week’s parasha, Nitzavim, we are told that the Torah is not in the heavens (“Lo bashamayim hi,” Deut. 30:12), that one should need not climb to the sky to bring it down. Yet, despite all our best intentions, greater access to our bimah awakened us to the fact that–for the one sitting in a wheelchair who approaches our Torah reader’s table–the Torah might as well be in the heavens. It is too high to see for those who cannot stand from their chair. If we had only begun our thought process from the perspective of the one seeking access, the entire design might look different today.
We have much for which we can be proud as we continue to shape our spaces and reshape our understanding of tradition. Our sages certainly understood the need to react according to changing needs and evolve. Our understanding of inclusivity, however, must begin with the perspective of the one who is bringing the gifts of their presence. The reactive approach to others’ needs may be admirable, but it potentially demands too much sacrifice and too high a personal cost for the one seeking access. He might even turn away before placing himself in the situation of asking for accommodation. True empathy would have us examine and shape our rituals, traditions and customs proactively, so that no person seeking access is left feeling like they are fighting for, or being granted, accommodation.
Scotty, you deserved so much more than a ramp.
From the second night of Passover, some of us have been “counting the Omer,” a period of seven weeks that culminates on the fiftieth day with the holiday of Shavuot. The omer was actually a measure of barley that was presented from the new barley crop to the High Priest in the time of the Temple, in fulfillment of the commandment in Leviticus 23:15 (from this week’s Torah portion, Emor). It has come to be known, however, as the period of forty-nine days we are commanded to count. Some people simply refer to this time as the sefirah (the counting). On a spiritual level, our mystics have imbued this practice over the centuries with multiple layers of meaning, focused especially on inner growth and ethical improvement. While it is not an easy ritual to incorporate into one’s life, even with the assistance of electronic reminders, I find it very satisfying to arrive at the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the Ten Commandments, knowing that I have been so conscious of the passage of time and so connected to the calendar.
The sefirah is also observed as a time of semi-mourning, during which Jewish law forbids haircuts, shaving, listening to instrumental music, weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing. According to the Talmud, a plague killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students in the early part of the second century during this time on the calendar. Tradition tells us they were punished for their inability to disagree with each other with respect. The thirty-third day of the sefirah is said to be the day in which the plague was lifted. Today (actually tonight into tomorrow!) we celebrate this thirty-third day–lamed (thirty) and gimmel (three), thus “Lag Ba’Omer”–by breaking from our mourning to cut our hair, shave (if our spouses force us to), dance to live music, and maybe even get married!
While I can’t speak to whether Rabbi Akiva’s students were the victims of Divine anger or of Roman swords during what was an historical period of rebellion, upheaval and suffering, I can appreciate the seriousness of the lesson our tradition conveys. Yesterday, our schools celebrated the national holiday known as “Teacher Appreciation Day.” As we find ourselves celebrating Lag Ba’Omer in the midst of Teacher Appreciation Week, I know what Rabbi Akiva’s students would offer us from the Jewish tradition:
Who is wise? Those who learn from every person. Who is honored? Those who honor all people. Do not disdain any person, for every person has his hour. Any person from whom we learn even a letter is considered to be our teacher; and anyone who is our teacher is considered to have given us life. Search out life teachers; in the process, you may discover new friends, while rendering yourself a more accepting, giving and forgiving person.
Appreciate your teachers—and every person’s potential to be your teacher—every day. Maybe that is the ultimate lesson we can as we strive each day to merit receiving Torah. Thank you, Mrs. Tuttle.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
When I was much younger, in my junior high and high school years, the last days of the Passover holiday were a time I truly cherished. Even if school was in session, my father would allow me the days off from school to be with him in synagogue for holiday services. It was school policy that no new material or exams could be assigned on the holy days, and my parents were willing to make sure that policy was observed. After all, as I was the only student in my class of 550 students to utilize the excused absence, there wasn’t much incentive for teachers to abide by the policy.
There are 13 “holy days” on the Jewish calendar: the first and last 2 days of Passover; the 2 days of Shavuot; the first and last 2 days of Sukkot; the 2 days of Rosh Hashanah; and Yom Kippur. Schools are closed on the 3 days of the “high holy days” in most New York and New Jersey districts, and some of these holy days occasionally fall on weekends (especially this year). Given that our calendar and dietary rules are two of the things which serve to best distinguish Jewish people from others, one would think that the Passover holiday would be an ideal time to avoid school and find our way to synagogue (where we are serving the very tastiest of Passover cakes this Friday and Saturday). When Jon Stewart of The Daily Show claims that Easter crushes Passover as holidays go, he skips the fact that Easter always takes up a Sunday, whereas 4 of the days of Passover are excused absences from school!
So maybe you scheduled a family vacation on some kosher-for-Passover island to avoid all the extra work that accompanies this holiday. But if you can’t join us this Friday and/or Saturday to celebrate our freedom, you have another opportunity that is 45 days away! As we count up to the holiday of Shavuot to celebrate the giving of the Torah, please consider that our next festival’s 2 holy days fall on Sunday and Monday of Memorial Day weekend! That means that you (and your children!) can pull an all-nighter with us at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (our all-night learning session from Saturday night through Sunday morning), catch up on your sleep through the day, and then join us on Monday for services and a Shavuot/Memorial Day barbecue picnic! Okay, so dairy is the prescribed holiday food, but we can make an exception for one meal if it means that we can bring true meaning to our religious and secular holidays. Besides, the opportunity to celebrate receiving the Torah, to recite Yizkor in remembrance of our own loved ones, to give honor to our fallen troops and to be together as a community–all in one day? Who could ask for anything more?!
And maybe, just maybe, the experience will inspire you to give your kids a holy day off from school when we celebrate Simchat Torah on Tuesday, October 6.
Rabbi Craig Scheff