Shavuot is the Jewish festival celebrated 50 days after Passover, at the end of the solemn seven weeks of the counting of the Omer. Historically, Shavuot was the time that farmers would bring their first harvests to the Temple as an offering. Spiritually, it is celebrated as the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The Omer forms a bridge from Passover to Shavuot – the Israelites were physically redeemed in the Passover story, freed from slavery and from a hostile enemy, but lacked a spiritual compass or ethical code until the giving of the Torah.
For years I heard Shavuot described as “just another agricultural holiday” and was told (incorrectly) it wasn’t really observed outside of Israel. I would think back to the trees I had planted, the sukkahs I had decorated, crisp apples on Rosh Hashana and the first greens of spring at Seder… It was logical that there would be a festival around the time of the grain harvest. It just didn’t seem to have any relevance to me. Despite my roots in organic gardening and Permaculture, at that time I didn’t yet realize that Permaculture (practical sustainable science) and the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) were different expressions of the same yearning, the same imperative to be sacred stewards during our brief lives.
What liberal Jew in this modern world – where many people are disconnected from seed, soil and plow – feels moved to mark an archaic farming festival? Many people are unaware that most calendrics were based on the time to till and sow. We still teach our children to sing Old McDonald and recite the Little Red Hen like the woman who cuts the ends off her roasts as her mother and grandmother did before her, not knowing it was because her Bubbe’s roasting pan was too small. So many children’s’ rhymes and stories show our roots run deep under thousands of years of plowed soil and unharvested field corners and if we listen closely to the words, we see themes of fundamental agriculture principals like cooperative farming and animal husbandry. Even just the simple sounds that animals make were important for the children of farmers to learn! Still, for the average urban, secular Jew in the diaspora, living in a country that has many more super markets than farmers markets, Shavuot holds little appeal.
Exactly ten years ago I observed Shavuot for the first time. I was a member of the Isla Vista Minyan, the community I had found to be my spiritual home while I was attending University. Though comprised mostly of bonafide adults, they met at the University Hillel, using the facilities on Shabbat morning when the college kids were just starting to enter REM after a late night of partying or studying. The IV Minyan’s calendar showed Shavuot coming up and I was told they had an unusual way of observing it. I had not participated regularly in synagogue life prior to college and I wanted to sample it all. I wanted to eat up every Jewish experience I could find. So I showed up to their all-night study event, with a bag of snacks for fuel and a pillow in case I got tired. No expectations, no preparation.
I can’t recall where I heard about the concept of the Torah being created as black fire on white fire (was it Reform Rabbi Steve, Chabadnik Reb Mendel or Academic Professor Hecht?), but the imagery was powerful for me: before the world was created, the Torah existed as black fire on white fire. I imagined this pulsating, knowledge bomb hanging in the tehom, the void. It was a nice image, sultry and esoteric. Not something I took literally but rather an image that helped evoke a sacred feeling about something at risk of withering in antiquity.
My first Shavuot started with the first breakout group of the customary all-night study sessions. Staying up all night to learn was not a new experience for the smattering of college kids that joined the forty or so Minyan members. As I nibbled from the traditional cheese platter, I read the offerings and tried to choose which talks I would attend. I ended up in a small study room learning with a very young visiting Chabad Rabbi and his teenage Rebbetzin. I think she was likely 19 years old, an adult by most measures, but the way she fidgeted in her chair she seemed much younger. Was she bored or just uncomfortable in her thick panty hose, heavy makeup and new sheytl?
The young Rabbi’s teaching was unmemorable as were the other five or six sessions I attended, interesting in the moment to be sure but no lasting revelations. The tradition on Shavuot is to study verses from every book of the Torah, paying special attention to important portions like Bereshit (In the Beginning) and the receiving of the Ten Commandments. As the night progressed, we snacked to stay awake and occasionally stepped outside to let the fresh air enliven our senses. I didn’t nod off but I was wilting by the time the sky began to lighten and was looking for a place to curl into a ball and rest my eyes.
Just before dawn, Rabbi Steve ran through the building and told everyone to get ready to process with the Torah. This idea perked me up – I knew we would march with the holy book past the sleepy frat houses and dormitories, and we would end up at Goleta beach to hear the Ten Commandments chanted. I was told the signature of this community was that some attendees ended up in the water (not with the Torah). How very Santa Barbara, I thought, a morning swim after a spiritual all-nighter.
As we wound through the quiet neighborhoods, the air was crisp and salty, the morning light on the horizon especially vibrant after a sleepless night.
The reader stood high on the beach with the old Torah and leyned the Ten Commandments in a strong, loud voice so we could all receive the mitzvot as we did on Mount Sinai. There is a beautiful teaching that every Jewish soul was present on Sinai, all that had been and would ever be born had personally received the Torah by the hand of Moses and the Holy One. Our reader lifted the Torah high in the air, opened several wide to the passage he had just read. By happy accident of where I was standing, I caught a glimpse of the parchment with the day’s new sun shining through from behind. The rosy glow illuminated the carefully scribed letters and I was bodily knocked to my knees with the vision of that holy fire. The sunlight gave the impression – no, it manifested, the black fire on white fire. It is said that Shavuot is a celebration of the giving of Torah, not the receiving, because we receive Torah every day. Here it was, as on the day of creation, the pulsing, blinding brilliance of sacred stories, laws and puzzles – all freshly emblazoned against the sky, as it had been before creation.
After the Torah was safely stowed, a hora began, the group from the learning session had grown to nearly one hundred as more had joined at the beach to take part in this rite. The throng danced and as we bounced up and down in ecstatic unison, it seemed that time and space melted. We stood on the beach. We stood at Sinai. The great ring of frenzied, joyful Jews danced right into the waves and continued to sing and bob as the water rushed up to lick our chests and shoulders. The cold was muted, the seaweed and tar nearly imperceptible as we held each others’ shoulders and wept with the relief of the morning light and the joy of the gift of the Torah for the first and thousandth time.
I wish you all a Hag Sameach, a joyful festival, and may you all catch some sparks of holiness when you least expect it.