If I’m not mistaken, and my Hebrew is correct (both only possibilities–for although I think I know what I know, I don’t know for certain that what I know is known fact), al Shavuot means “On Shavuot.” This evening began the Festival of Weeks, in Hebrew known as Shavuot, which celebrates the giving of the Torah. At Pesach (Passover), the Israelites were freed from Egypt, and seven weeks later (hence the name Shavuot, which literally means “weeks”), God gave the people the Torah. For nearly four thousand years, we’ve been commemorating this night, and it’s taken nearly four thousand years for me to finally be inspired by it.
You’ll understand all that in a moment. For now just let me add a little folklore, or as I might prefer to say, tradition.
Traditionally on Shavuot, we eat dairy, because the Israelites did not yet have the kashrut (dietary laws), so when we stood before Sinai, we only ate dairy because we didn’t know which meat was kosher. Traditionally on Shavuot, we study Torah deep into the night (and all the way to morning if we can), because legends say that God gave the Torah to us at midnight on this night, and that…well…we were all sleeping, so to make up for it, we’ve vowed always not to sleep on this night and to study Torah instead. Traditionally on Shavuot, I go on like it’s any other day.
I’m trying to change that. Again, I’ll get to the point in a moment.
If you’ve got a keen eye for grammar, you might have noticed I’ve used the pronoun “we” when referring back to the night when the Torah was given. This is because it’s believed in Judaism that we were all present at Sinai when God gave the Torah to us. Perhaps we don’t remember, but it’s true: We were there. I was there, too, but when the Israelites awoke, I still slept. And I kept sleeping. And sleeping for some time after that. And I suppose until very recently (perhaps in the last few years or so), I remained sleeping.
But now I’m starting to stir. I’m starting to rise up and hear the words of Moshe as he reads to us the Torah, the words of God as he speaks down from the mountain to all the people far below. It’s a deep, long slumber from which I now awake, but that I’m finally rising is what matters. In the words of Hillel, the rest is commentary.
So what’s all this about Shavuot if, traditionally, I’ve treated it just as any other day?
It’s because a new tradition has begun, or at least is still beginning. Every year on Shavuot, my synagogue has an all-night (read: usually till midnight) study event in which various rabbis and teachers in our community have sessions about various topics until we have a Torah-study session at the very end, right as Shavuot begins. Last year I attended this for the first time with my mother, and although–truth be told–I can no longer recall exactly what the theme of the evening was, I do recall the three sessions I attended, what I learned, and most of all, the feeling it instilled within me. It was a great awe, a reverence and wonder of a sort that nothing else on earth–not even Israel!–has been able to replicate. Such deep study, such wholesome kavana (intention), all stirred and steeped together on the night of Shavuot–it was blissful, incredible, moving and phenomenal–and all those words fall short of the feelings I felt inside, that indescribable satisfaction, that gnawing awe, that unshakable sense of purpose, belonging, fulfillment.
(It’s one of the reason I began considering, perhaps seriously, becoming a rabbi.)
(And now that I recollect, it’s the same feeling I felt now eight years ago during my Bar Mitzvah, that transcendent feeling I had thought could only be felt once, that had been so key in my digression from Judaism, that has now brought me back, time and time again, to delve deeper into Judaism with every taste I receive of this insatiably sustaining source of spiritual sublimation.)
Tonight again I was fortuned, against many odds stacked against me, to attend this Tikkun Leyl Shavuot (whose exact translation I do not know, but is this event I’ve been speaking of), and it was more blissful and more amazing than I could in serving memory recall.
I could easily speak for hours of all that went on in this small window of three and a half hours, but even then, no infinite number of words could capture this unnameable feeling inside me. It’s beyond words. It’s beyond description. It’s beyond comprehension.
But of all that, one thing is most certain: It was inspiring.
I digress (momentarily): Between Pesach and Shavuot, it’s tradition to study the Pirkei Avot, loosely translated as the Ethics of the Fathers or the Wisdom of the Sages, and my synagogue does this during the Shabbat (Saturday) afternoon service. Three times I have read Torah for one of these such services (all three times reading Naso, my Bar Mitzvah portion, either ironically or miraculously is still to decide), and each of these three times, I have absolutely loved the fifteen or so minutes at the end when we study. It gives me a glimmer of this feeling I long to feel, and every time, it has inspired me to page through the Pirkei Avot and see what speaks to me.
Tonight, the theme of the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot was the Pirkei Avot.
Riding home, after this wonderful evening, my mind wandered (as often it does, following white rabbits wherever they lead me) to my mental dialogue a few days ago in which I said to myself I felt it was time to take another step toward being more observant of the Sabbath. As some of you may recall, some months ago in mid-January, I wrote about how I stopped shaving and cutting my nails on Shabbat, things you’re not supposed to do on the Sabbath. Little things. I’ve dutifully kept to this, but I want to go further.
So I said to myself, ditch video games. Then I answered, but that’s how I relieve stress, and considering the upcoming weekends, busy as they are, it’s not the best time to do that. But then I was out of ideas for what small steps I can take that I’ll actually be able to keep up with at this point. Tonight it struck me that perhaps instead of taking something away, I should add to what I do every Shabbat. It’s a mitzvah (that is, a commandment) to study Torah on Shabbat, and with how attached I’ve become to the Pirkei Avot, I see no better step to take right now than to read a single mishneh (a single teaching) from the Pirkei Avot each Shabbat. There’s a lot of them, so it’ll be a lot of weeks I’ll have to adjust my habits (and hopefully drop a few more as I go along) to do this and since each of them is fairly short, it shouldn’t be too difficult to do. Furthermore, since I’ve got a blog now, I can post my thoughts on each mishneh here, which will serve a twofold purpose: To keep me committed and to be a reminder of my spiritual growth. And, of course, along the way, not only will I grow as a Jew, I’ll continue my goal towards being the Jew I want to be.
(Which may or may not end in being a rabbi, but we’ll see, won’t we?)