By Sam Glaser
Shavuot is a mysterious holiday. This commemoration of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai isn’t given a specific date for its celebration; instead we are told in the Book of Exodus to schedule it seven weeks from the second night of Passover. The tradition is to enjoy four sumptuous meals over the two days of the holiday and ensure that at least a few of them feature dairy foods. Evidently, at Mount Sinai, we received the laws of kashrut but didn’t have time to master proper slaughtering practices, so eating dairy was safer. Another reason for cheesecake at this time of year: the gematria of the word chalav (milk) is forty, paralleling the number of days Moshe spent on the mountain.
Shavuot offers a welcome respite after the semi-mourning of S’firat Ha’omer. One highlight is the custom of staying up all night to learn Torah, called Tikkun L’eil Shavuot, the healing of the night of Shavuot. Why a healing, one might ask? In the description of the morning of the Revelation at Sinai, the Midrash describes how the Israelites overslept and had to be awakened by Moshe. How could we have fallen asleep the night before? We should have been too excited to sleep a wink! Thanks to our exhausted ancestors, we pull an all-nighter to rectify this grievous error.
Perhaps Shavuot has no set date because the essence of Torah is outside of time and space. Whereas sanctifying food requires a new blessing with every meal, the blessing over Torah study need only happen once a day. We don’t just study Torah. We live Torah. This blessing finishes with the words, “Who gives us Torah,” stated in the present tense. Shavuot is less an anniversary than a celebration of the continuous flow of Revelation.
I have certain rabbis with whom I really connect–rare individuals who see the big picture, possess both academic and Torah backgrounds and live their learning. One year, one of those individuals was coming to lead the study. Shavuot with Rabbi Simcha Weinberg featured almost continuous learning over a three-day weekend, starting on Friday night. By the final class Sunday night, I felt like I was opened up, firing on all cylinders, with new enthusiasm for the “same ole” prayers and new eyes to see the colors of life.
Just like the glory of the revelation of Torah led to a cataclysm with the golden calf, so, too, did our communal holiday celebration end in disaster. The next day, I sat down to check my email. Two caught my eye, both with the heading “Baruch Dayan HaEmet” (Blessed is the True Judge). These are the emails I never want to read. These are the words Jews utter automatically when hearing shocking news, usually about someone’s death. This stock phrase counters the tendency to respond, “Oh, it’s not fair” or, “How could God let this happen?” Jewish tradition insists God knows exactly what is going on and even though we might not understand, this tragedy is also God’s will.
Two of our close friends had lost their wives. Both were young mothers; beautiful women in every way; beacons of charity and kindness. Two agonizing funerals were followed by intense shiva minyanim (prayers during the first week of mourning). When visiting with their guests, the husbands would bravely tell anecdotes about their wives and then convulse again in misery. Speechless family and friends watched as prepubescent kids struggled with Kaddish.
These calamities occurred the day after we celebrated the giving of Torah. I struggled, as did many in our community, with this stark contrast: on one hand, the holiday emphasizes that everything happening to us is directed by God and like the Jews at Sinai, it’s our job to respond with acceptance and allegiance. But I’m human, and I was grieving, and part of me struggled to accept the horrible events handed to people whom I really cared about.
The same God Who arranged for these two women to pass on this week, is the same God Who created the universe, Who gave us Avraham and Sarah, Who freed us from slavery in Egypt and gifted the Torah 3,333 years ago on the very first Shavuot. This is the Makom, the Omnipresent, Who will help my now single-father friends cope and bring them and their children healing.
We are always receiving divine messages, heavenly love notes, holy whispers of Oral Torah. We may not always understand them. Shavuot is here to open our hearts to this communication. May the words of our beloved Torah always be sweet on our lips. May these two families feel the shelter of the wings of the True Judge; may the Omnipresent comfort them, together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 albums of his compositions, travels the world in concert, produces music for various media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com.