Message from Rabbi Berman
Shavuot is coming right up. Of the three pilgrimage holidays, Shavuot’s probably the least understood. What we do with on Pesach and Sukkot is prescribed right in the Torah itself. We retell the story of our liberation from the bonds of slavery at the Seder, with its symbolic foods, and during Sukkot we live, or at least eat—weather permitting—in a fragile, temporary shelter, plus we march around with and wave the four species of plants that the Torah describes.
Shavuot is different. It’s in the Torah, but the text doesn’t refer to any special plants, foods, structures, or objects. It seems to be a day to bring in the first fruits of the fields and firstborns of the domesticated animals. After giving them to the priests, there was a formulaic statement to make, expressing gratitude for the bounty, which began, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Sound familiar? It’s not what we say during Shavuot today; it’s found in the Passover Haggadah. There just isn’t a prescribed ritual for Shavuot that fits our post-Temple times. So what is this holiday for? What does it commemorate?
Enter the ancient rabbis. After a close reading of the text, they decided that since one of the names for this festival is “Weeks” (that’s what Shavuot means in Hebrew) because it takes place seven weeks (and a day) after the first day of Pesach, it must be when the Israelites (collective, plural) coalesced into the Jewish People (unified, singular) at Sinai; when we were given the Torah, or at least the Ten Commandments; the day we got the word.
So now we celebrate Shavuot, Weeks, as the time of the giving of our Torah, Z’man Mattan Torateinu, as It is referred to in our holiday prayers. We study Torah at a Tikkun L’eil Shavuot to commemorate that. But the study session and the custom of eating cheesecake are not mentioned in the Torah; they came after. You can tell the origin of the consuming dairy products on Shavuot is unknown because there are seven or eight —so many different stories telling why we do it. I’ll go into that more at the Tikkun.
What is special about this year’s Shavuot is the gathering. Just as the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, we’ll soon be gathering too. Maybe not Shavuot—it may be a tad early for that—but our long year-plus of separation is coming to a close. Whether or not we gather at the chapel in person for the first time in so long, it’s coming. By Shavuot we’ll have a clearer picture of how TBE will reopen to both public prayer and other ways of congregating. We have a reopening committee and they will be reaching out to everyone to make the plan clear. Appropriate guidelines will be observed as we ease our way back to something resembling normalcy. “’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished,” to quote Rabbi Shakespeare.
There is much left to be learned about this enigmatic holiday. Let’s learn it together. Details for our tikkun the night of May 5 and services the following two mornings (including yizkor on May 7) will be in upcoming announcements. Take the opportunity to learn more and I hope to see you then
Until then, see you in cybershul,