One reason Shavuot has no set date is because the essence of Torah is outside of time and space.
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 Sefer Sh’mot (the Book of Exodus) to schedule it seven weeks from the second night of Passover. I never heard about it as I grew up. It usually transpires after Hebrew School adjourns for the summer, and other than serving Aunt Martha’s blintzes without mentioning why, my folks never brought it up. 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, back at Mount Sinai, we received the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) but didn’t have time to master proper slaughtering practices, so eating dairy was a safer bet.
One highlight of Shavuot 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.
Shavuot is one of my favorite holidays. With no specific duties other than learning, praying and eating as much as possible, it’s a (cheese)cakewalk. One reason Shavuot has no set date is 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.
Some years, we have rented a cabin in the local mountains with a minyan of friends and a Torah scroll to reenact the Sinai experience. In our ’hood, most shuls keep java on tap and use the extended period to dive into titillating text study until dawn. When the horizon ignites at 5 a.m., all the bleary-eyed survivors slam-dunk a festival Shacharit service and then walk home to pass out until lunchtime.
One year after Shavuot, I learned that two of our close friends lost their wives. Both were young mothers, each with three grade school children. Strikingly beautiful women; beacons of charity and kindness. Two agonizing funerals were followed by intense shiva minyanim (prayers during the first week of mourning). After the first funeral, I was asked to lead Mincha at the shiva house. I shouldn’t have agreed: I sobbed throughout the service, starting and stopping and trying again. 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 the 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.
To add to this schizophrenic contrast, the next night I went to a Lakers game with my brother Joey. Yes, life is for the living. The energy was palpable as the crowd jumped to its feet with every heroic basket. We were awestruck by the team’s miraculous coordination and perseverance. I had to resort to inserting earplugs halfway through the game thanks to the din of manic fans. After the final buzzer, I went to hear some of the greatest musicians in the world play at an L.A. nightclub. Keyboard wizard David Garfield led his septet through the brambles of some of the thorniest charts imaginable, bringing waves of unbridled pleasure to this music lover. Again I was brought to tears, but this time they were tears of joy.
I decided to drive home over the canyon, rather than the more expedient freeway. At the top of the pass, I pulled off at a beautiful wilderness area, the headquarters of the L.A.-based environmental group Tree People. With the aid of the ambient glow of the metropolis, I hiked a mile to the top of a hill and prayed Ma’ariv under a waxing moon. How did these deaths figure in God’s plan? Where is God’s “beneficent kindness” amidst this daunting sorrow wracking our community?
The same God who arranged for these two women to pass, 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 3,500 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 and encourage us to keep the conversation alive.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 CDs of his music and a book titled The Joy of Judaism. This essay is an excerpt from his book.