Rabbi Lisa Barrett of Menorah Synagogue shares her thoughts about the festival of Shavuot.
On Pesach, we experience liberation from slavery. On Shavuot we stand before Sinai, renewing our part in the mutual covenant between the Jewish people and G-d. Judaism teaches that we should not regard the encounter at Sinai as a one-off historical event, rather as an ongoing encounter which is revealed to us each and every day, if we are only present enough to hear its call.
There is a Midrashic discussion about what exactly the people heard through the din of thunder, lightning, and shofar blasts. Was it the whole of the Ten Commandments? Or just the first one: I am the Lord your G-d/Anochi Adonai elohecha…? A Chassidic teaching suggests that what the people heard was just the first letter of the first word of the first commandment. In other words, the letter Aleph, which is, of course, silent. The teaching here is clear: it is through listening – deep and open-hearted listening – that we encounter truth and holiness.
Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks, with its ancient origins in the barley harvest, falls this year on Saturday night on 4th June and on Sunday 5th June, with two days of the holiday observed in Orthodox communities outside of Israel. It is celebrated exactly seven weeks after Pesach. Sefirat Ha’Omer, the counting of the 49- day period between Pesach and Shavuot, is a powerful spiritual practice for many, providing an opportunity for mindful reflection and personal transformation; an invitation, through counting each day, to “make each day count”.
It is traditional to eat dairy products on Shavuot, with cheesecake taking central place in Ashkenazi communities. The many reasons given for this custom include the scriptural source from Song of Songs (4:11) that “milk and honey are under your tongue”; this, along with the source: “The precepts of G-d are… sweeter than honey” (Psalms 19:9-11) indicate we should also eat honey, which is customary in some communities. According to the kabbalists, the numerical value of the word halav, milk, is 40 (“het” = 8, “lamed” = 30, “vet” = 2), equating to the number of
days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. Another tradition is to participate in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night study session, to avoid the temptation of falling asleep and missing the moment of revelation, as happened for the Israelites at Sinai according to some commentators.
We read the Book of Ruth, whose story takes place at the time of the barley harvest. Ruth’s embrace of the Jewish people through her mother-in-law Naomi reflects the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Sinai. Ruth’s descendant, King David, is the ancestor of the Messiah, who will, in turn, be the harbinger of the messianic age and peace among all dwellers on earth. This year, with war devastating Ukraine and other parts of the world, our yearnings for peace and understanding among all peoples are more fervent than ever.
You can find out more about Shavuot here: Myjewishlearning.com/category/celebrate/shavuot