Monday, June 6, 2011

Why Eat Dairy on Shavuot -- and More...

If you put two plump cheese blintzes next to each other they just might resemble the two tablets of the law. But, I think we need to do better than that to bring meaning to our observance of Shavuot. The least attention getting of the holidays, it has a few things going against it from the start. No prominent engaging ritual and no eight-day marathon. Its timing is quite less than perfect coming as the school year is winding down, with no secular holiday season to boost its observance. Blink and you just might miss it entirely. Ironically, this low-key nature of Shavuot is its essence. When it comes to Shavuot less is more. Let me explain.
Try and find Shavuot in the Torah. Look for the verse linking Shavuot to the Giving of the Torah, search for the exact date, and maybe try to find the part about cheesecake. You will find none of these. Here is what you will find: We are commanded to count fifty days from the second day of Pesach when the omer offering is brought and to then observe the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot. On the holiday itself the Israelites bring first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem and the priests offer the two loaves of bread. The day is holy and work is prohibited.
Three elements of the holiday seem to be missing. There is no clear designation by the text that Shavuot is the day that the Torah was given. There is no explicit date. And where are the blintzes?
Often we can learn from what is hidden as we learn from what is revealed. No specific date for Shavuot? Well, if we count seven weeks from the second of Pesach we clearly arrive at the date for Shavuot. Seven weeks, forty nine days equals the 6th of Sivan. Ambiguity regarding the date is clearly not the point - we can and do calculate its appropriate convergence. Why then the obscurity in the text? What message does Torah give us when instead of telling us the specific date it tells us to count the days from Pesach to Shavuot?
Pesach and Shavuot are connected. Shavuot’s very essence is that it does not stand-alone. By its very definition it is an extension of Pesach. Some would even say that the counting effectually transforms Shavuot into the final day of Pesach. Atzeret, one of the names of Shavuot reflects the idea of conclusion, as in Shemini Atzeret the eighth concluding day of Succot. Pesach is not complete without Shavuot and Shavuot does not happen without Pesach. Pesach is the physical redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage - while Shavuot marks the spiritual redemption. We anxiously count the days that transform us from slaves to a free people able to recognize and hear the words of God.
Why wait the fifty days? Why are the Israelites not given the Torah straight away upon exiting Egypt? Shavuot could easily have been the real last day of Pesach. Several reasons. We were clearly not ready. The tribes exposed to Egyptian culture and paganism were yet to be the people of the book and the pyramid builders of Egypt lacked the fortitude to wrestle with nuances of monotheism and a life of transcendence.
Wait and anticipate, count and reckon - almost breathless with hope tally the days till destiny arrives. Number the fifty days from Pesach to Shavuot till God reveals himself to the people Israel. No date for Shavuot? Of course not there can be no date. An individual date stands alone, the fiftieth is part of a process, a moment in the fluid movement towards becoming closer to God and Torah.
Staying up all night Shavuot, decorating the sanctuary with flowers, confirmations, and Shavuot liturgy all reflect the long held belief that Shavuot is the day that the Torah was given to the Children of Israel. There is no scriptural citation stating thus and no prescribed ritual to inscribe it upon our consciousness. No Seder to follow no Succah to sit in. It is as if the Torah was purposefully obscuring the historic event and intentionally stripping it of any ritualistic commemoration. You’ve heard the lyrics; every day is Mother’s Day with you… well I suppose every day is Torah day for us. No one day can or should be set aside as the day to re-experience the giving of the Torah, that is for every day. The Midrash Tanhumah puts it this way, “Every day let the Torah be as dear to you as if you had received it this day from Mt. Sinai.” Revelation, says Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, cannot be translated into the tangible language of symbol. Can one even imagine what that might look like? What happened at Sinai was very much a one and only unique never to be repeated or imitated experience. The ritual to remember the Giving of the Torah is the every day ritual of Torah study that our people has dedicated themselves to, to never let this book of teaching cease from our lips.
Now for the menu; milk, elixir of life lead us to thoughts of intimacy, nourishment, simplicity and modesty. The way of Torah says the Tanna, is to eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure. A life of humbleness; Torah is like honey and milk under our tongue says the Midrash on the Song of Songs. Milk is pure and symbolizes the pristine whiteness of God who out of kindness revealed himself to us with intimacy, to nourish and give us life. Passed through the generations is the idea that the day of the Giving of the Torah is the day to eat with modesty reflecting the ultimate value of walking humbly with the Lord.
Less is more; less attention, less hoopla. So it is sometimes with things that are most precious and private. What we hold most dear we hold most close. Shavuot comes quietly after Pesach, we build no succahs and buy no loads of groceries. We cook modest meals and study Torah through the night. Oh and don’t blink you might miss it.