It was Shavuot 2012. I was in my second year of rabbinic school, and Shavuot was still mostly a mystery to me.
I knew the basics: Shavuot means “Weeks” and comes seven weeks (seven times seven days!) after Passover. It commemorates the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. It is connected to the biblical story of Ruth and Naomi, and sometimes also connected, in the Reform Movement, to the end-of-year confirmation ceremony.
But at the time, I had no idea how to celebrate Shavuot, and to be honest, I wasn’t even quite sure what I was supposed to be celebrating.
Which is how I found myself sitting on a folding chair in the back corner of a jam-packed Bel Air living room, studying cheese at 11:30pm on a weeknight.
It sounds strange, but I remember that evening fondly. It was study “l’shem shemayim” – study simply for the sake of study. It was late at night which somehow made it feel special. Smart, engaged learners of all ages were chiming in, sharing thoughts. And the rabbis who were teaching, each clearly from their own perspective and in their own style, seemed truly to be having fun with this somewhat silly and obscure topic of dairy and how dairy became associated with Shavuot.
Almost ten years later, I have grown to deeply appreciate Shavuot, in large thanks to another practice I have developed: counting the Omer. Counting the Omer moves us from Passover and Shavuot, linking the two holidays and for me, heightening the symbolism of them both. On Passover we tell our story, on Shavuot we receive our story. On Passover we celebrate having the freedom to choose, and on Shavuot we make a choice. On Passover, our ancestors began their journey back into covenant and identity and on Shavuot, they arrived.
On Shavuot, we celebrate the gift of Torah and all that it holds. On Shavuot, we relive the moment of standing together at Sinai.
Together we receive the Ten Commandments all over again. Together we affirm and confirm our commitment to the Jewish people; to the values the Torah teaches us and the rules it invites us to grapple with. Together, we remember that we are all created b’tzelem elohim, in the image of God. We remember that we are not to stand idly by, or to place a stumbling block before the blind. We remember to keep Shabbat, to honor our parents, to be honest, and just, and to treat all people like the Godly creations we all are. Together, on Shavuot, we remember that together, we are holy.
This year, making the most of the collaborative opportunities presented to us by this pandemic, we at Temple Beth El are partnering with communities across the East Coast (from New York to Florida!) to come together for prayer and learning in celebration of Shavuot, and you are all invited to join! We will gather online at 6:30pm for a recitation of the Ten Commandments up and down the coast, followed by a number of 50-minute learning sessions beginning at 7:30pm and concluding at 11:30pm. It will be learning for the sake of learning, in the magical twilight hours of the evening, with teacher from near and far – and who knows, we may even get to discuss the merit and demerits of dairy!