Earlier today as I was looking over my shopping list I paused and wondered, is this what it really boils down to? Has this time of receiving the Torah, the culmination of 49 days of preparation and introspection really been reduced to the ingredients for a cheesecake?
I feel slightly detached as I realise that my current connection to this holy time is through my menu. Before having kids it was easier for me to tap into the power of this festival when I would stay up learning, trying to remain awake as I listened to Torah lectures throughout the night. In my seminary year in Israel, following hours of learning, we walked to the Kotel to pray shacharit. The walk through the streets of Jerusalem in the early hours of the morning was incredible, as was the atmosphere. As more people gathered along the way, the crowds grew, hordes of people making their way to a shared destination, the old city.
I no longer stay awake for nocturnal learning and I don’t usually make it to the Kotel over Shavuot either. I do attend a women’s learning session in the late afternoon which is a fantastic alternative for me. However, it takes place towards the end of Shavuot, so whilst that inspires the end of my chag the beginning can be less uplifting.
This difficulty in accessing Shavuot isn’t just a personal frustration due to current life circumstances and the fact that motherhood has altered my schedule- many people find Shavuot elusive. There is a distinct lack of specific mitzvot to fulfil. There isn’t a shofar to blow or a chanukiah to light or a specific one time a year food such as matzah to enjoy. No lulav and etrog to grasp hold of and shake, or sukkah within which to enter, eat and sleep. Staying up all night to learn is a beautiful custom, and for good reason. If it works for you it can be something that really helps you to connect to this time of the receiving of the Torah, but if it doesn’t work for you then what do you do?
Eating dairy food on Shavuot is another custom, just like staying up all night learning Torah. Since the Torah is likened to milk in the book of Shir Hashirim, we eat dairy foods on the day the Torah was given to us. This custom may seem more mundane and humdrum than Torah learning, but it works well for my family. As I shop for and bake my cheesecake, I am connecting to this time in a different way.
For Pesach during my first year of marriage, I insisted that my husband and I use blue check cloth to cover our tables and surfaces- no other colour nor pattern would work for me. This was my association with Pesach, this was the pattern that my parents used for their countertops and this had evolved to become part of what Pesach meant to me. So too, Shavuot evokes memories of chocolate cheesecake. It became an annual tradition that my mother would prepare this highly anticipated cake from a recipe handed down through the family. Those vivid memories are so important to my connection to Shavuot. As I set out to create memories for my own children I ensure that there is an abundance of cheesecake in our home over Shavuot. Flowers are another popular custom of Shavuot since the foot of Mount Sinai was meant to have blossomed with greenery and flowers in preparation for Matan Torah. With this in mind, I also try to have a bunch of flowers on the table and some flower headbands or floral lapels for the family to wear. These are small acts, but through these details I can bring the Torah to life and provide “Torat imecha.”
The giving of the Torah on Shavuot was an awesome event accompanied by thunder, lightning, the sound of the shofar and the shaking of the earth. The nation openly and directly encountered G-d in an unbelievable experience. Yet, just forty days later they were already worshipping the golden calf. So shocked was Moshe that he dropped and smashed the newly received luchot, tablets engraved with the ten commandments. After a period of earning G-d’s forgiveness and repairing the relationship, the second set of tablets were handed over. This time the experience was very different, it was done in a private manner just between G-d and Moshe. There was no fanfare and no nation watching or witnessing.
We needed the public national revelation to take place, it is a vital part of our history and each year we try to relive that experience, but grand gestures don’t guarantee loyalty and commitment. The second luchot were given in a more humble manner and these were the ones that stayed intact.
This idea is also reflected in the book of Ruth which we read over Shavuot. Megillat Ruth is not a dramatic story filled with major events, as we see in Megillat Esther over Purim. This is a modest story about Naomi and her family. It accounts their journey to Moav and the ensuing tragedy as the male family members die. It follows her return to Beit Lechem with her daughter in law Ruth and their quest for food and a husband for Ruth. Yet this uneventful story leads to the birth of King David. Ruth’s story highlights the importance of small acts, of kindness in this case, and how they can lead to great results.
So yes, my Shavuot does centre around cheesecake and that’s fine because private gestures and small acts and connections matter and make a difference too.