By Sam Glaser
Shavuot 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. I never heard about it as I grew up. It usually transpires after Hebrew School adjourns for the summer and other than serving Aunt Martha’s blintzes without mentioning why, my folks never brought it up. 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, back at Mount Sinai, we received the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) but didn’t have time to master proper slaughtering practices, so eating dairy was a safer bet. Another reason for cheesecake at this time of year: the gematria of the word chalav (milk) is forty, paralleling the number of days that Moshe spent on the mountain.
Shavuot offers a welcome respite after the semi-mourning of S’firat Ha’omer. One highlight is the custom of staying up all night to learn Torah, called Tikkun L’eil Shavuot, the healing of the night of Shavuot. Why a healing, one might ask? In the description of the morning of the Revelation at Sinai, the Midrash describes how the Israelites overslept and had to be awakened by Moshe. How could we have fallen asleep the night before? We should have been too excited to sleep a wink! Thanks to our exhausted ancestors, we pull an all-nighter to rectify this grievous error.
Shavuot is one of my favorite holidays. With no specific duties other than learning, praying and eating as much as possible, it’s a (cheese) cakewalk. One reason Shavuot 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. Shavuot is less an anniversary than a celebration of the continuous flow of Revelation.
Some years, we have rented a cabin in the local mountains with a minyan of friends and a Torah scroll to reenact the Sinai experience. In our ‘hood, most shuls keep java on tap and use the extended period to dive into titillating text study until dawn. When the horizon ignites at 5:00 am, all the bleary-eyed survivors slam dunk a festival Shacharit service and then walk home to pass out until lunchtime. For years, the Happy Minyan in Los Angeles sponsored a Torah Slam, allowing anyone to take the stage but limiting each speaker to exactly one minute to make a point. Intense creativity, humor and spontaneity were unleashed and best of all, it was easy to stay awake!
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 town to lead the study and I didn’t want to miss a word. Shavuot with Rabbi Simcha Weinberg featured almost continuous learning over the three-day weekend. The first night he spoke at services and then resumed teaching from 11:00 pm until 5:00 am. The topic, near and dear to my heart, was thorough text study of the Hallel service. After a sunrise Shacharit service, we slept until our festive lunch began and then did the Diaspora Groundhog Day routine on the second night of the holiday (just like Pesach, Jewish folks outside of Israel are privileged with a duplicate day add-on). That particular year, the extra day happened to be Shabbat. So there were more inspired classes with the rabbi, celebratory meals and then a 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.
I was not only high from the Shavuot learning; the week before the holiday I enjoyed a soul and parnasa (income) boost from several unique concerts. I performed a few shows at synagogues in Northern California and then returned to L.A. to sing the “Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless America” at the Dodger-Mets game. While it was quite exciting to sing for the nearly sold-out crowd, my main focus was giving nachas to my father who has occupied the same box seats behind home plate since the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn. The next night, I regaled 1200 Aish banquet attendees at the Beverly Hilton and then drove to La Jolla to perform a Torah dedication concert at the San Diego Jewish Academy. I made it home with an hour to go before candlelighting, hugged my wife and kids and dashed off to shul for the Erev Shavuot services. 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 day after this action-packed week, I opened up my studio, turned on the various racks of audio gear and started up my trusty Mac. My first move is to check my email and since I had been away, there were hundreds begging for attention. 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 God let this happen?” Jewish tradition insists God knows exactly what is going on and even though we might not understand, this tragedy is also God’s will.
Two of our close friends lost their wives. Both were young mothers, each with three grade school children. Strikingly beautiful women; beacons of charity and kindness. Two agonizing funerals were followed by intense shiva minyanim (prayers during the first week of mourning). After the first funeral, I was asked to lead Mincha at the shiva house. I shouldn’t have agreed: I sobbed throughout the service, starting and stopping and trying again. 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 God 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.
To add to this schizophrenic contrast, the next night I went to a Lakers game with my brother Joey. Yes, life is for the living. The energy was palpable as the crowd jumped to its feet with every heroic basket. We were awestruck by the team’s miraculous coordination and perseverance. I had to resort to inserting earplugs halfway through the game thanks to the din of manic fans. After the final buzzer, I went to hear some of the greatest musicians in the world play at an L.A. nightclub. Keyboard wizard David Garfield led his septet through the brambles of some of the thorniest charts imaginable, bringing waves of unbridled pleasure to this music lover. I marveled as they spun spontaneous improvised melodies, flurries of notes soaring over the funkiest grooves, performed with seemingly impossible dexterity. Again I was brought to tears, but this time they were tears of joy.
I decided to drive home over the canyon, rather than the more expedient freeway. At the top of the pass, I pulled off at a beautiful wilderness area, the headquarters of the LA-based environmental group Tree People. With the aid of the ambient glow of the metropolis, I hiked a mile to the top of a hill and prayed Ma’ariv under a waxing moon. As I pondered the night sky against the shadows of towering pines, I had a realization: while dating my wife, the first party I saw her throw was a benefit for Tree People. I was astonished by her grace and efficiency as she made sure every detail was perfect and all her guests were cared for. I noted she shared her generous smile with everyone. That’s when I knew she was the one. Shira is the light of my life, beloved in our extended family and treasured in our community. We also have three kids who are the same ages as the kids who just lost their mothers. The tragedies of the week hit too close to home. How did this figure in God’s plan? Where is God’s “beneficent kindness” amidst this daunting sorrow wracking our community?
The same God Who arranged for these two women to pass on this week, is the same God 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 Shavuot. 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. Shavuot is here to open our hearts to this communication and encourage us to keep the conversation alive. Perhaps Shavuot has no set date so we make every single day a celebration of receiving God’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. He has released 25 CDs of his music and his book
The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. He produces albums and scores for media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com.