Shavuos 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 kashrus 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.
Shavuos offers a welcome respite after the semi-mourning of S’firas HaOmer. One highlight is the custom of staying up all night to learn Torah, called Tikkun L’eil Shavuos, the healing of the night of Shavuos. One reason Shavuos 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. Shavuos 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. Shavuos 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 G-d let this happen?” Jewish tradition insists G-d knows exactly what is going on and even though we might not understand, this tragedy is also G-d’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 the one hand, the holiday emphasizes that everything happening to us is directed by G-d 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 G-d Who arranged for these two women to pass on this week, is the same G-d Who created the universe, Who gave us Avraham and Sarah, Who freed us from slavery in Egypt and gifted the Torah 3500 years ago on the very first Shavuos. 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. Shavuos is here to open our hearts to this communication. Perhaps Shavuos has no set date so we make every single day a celebration of receiving G-d’s Instructions for Living. 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. His book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com. Join Sam for a weekly uplifting hour of study every Wednesday night (7:00 pm PST, Zoom Meeting ID: 71646005392) for learners of all ages and levels of knowledge.