Dear TEE community,
Shavuot is a major holiday that gets treated like a minor one. I think there are a number of reasons for this. First, unlike the other festivals of Sukkot and Passover, it only lasts one day, rather than seven. Additionally, in contrast to those other holidays, the Torah does not provide Shavuot with an engaging home ritual, like dwelling in a sukkah or having a seder. For those of us who grew up attending Reform Jewish religious school, Shavuot was the occasion for graduation and/or Confirmation ceremonies but not something we learned about in class.
Perhaps because it comes at the end of the school year, or as the weather takes a turn toward warmth, I think of Shavuot as a summer holiday but really it is a second spring festival. Its roots lie in ancient Israel’s agricultural calendar. Passover marked the time of planting and Shavuot celebrated the first barley harvest. The forty-nine days counted in between were a time of uncertainty and I wonder if that is why the rabbis designated them a time of semi-mourning. The rabbis also reimagined the days between Passover and Shavuot as the journey from Egypt to Sinai and, hence, Shavuot became known as the anniversary of giving of the Torah.
There are many intriguing midrashim, rabbinic stories, about what happened at Sinai. My favorites have to do with the idea that, at the moment of revelation, the whole mountain burst into flower. There is a related concept that each word of the commandments carried with it a distinctive scent, carried from one end of the world to the other, and then swept away by the wind to make way for the next. I thought of these images this week as I walked through the lilacs in Highland Park, both their color and their perfume filling the air around me. I love the idea of the Torah, our foundational sacred teaching, filling our lives like the beauty of that experience.
In honor of that moment of flowering on Sinai, it was traditional for synagogues and homes to be adorned with tree branches and blossoms during Shavuot. In Eastern Europe, papercuts in the form of flowers, especially roses, were displayed in windows. There is even evidence that whole trees were brought into synagogues during the holidays.
This year, for our Shavuot holiday services on Friday May 26, I would like to invite anyone who has a garden to bring in branches or flowers (in vases) to decorate our bimah and enhance our experience of receiving Torah.
The link between Torah and nature is also the theme of our annual Garden of Torah Shavuot celebration on Sunday May 28. The past decades have seen a revival of Jewish papercutting traditions and my daughter, Iso Setel, will be offering a workshop to teach both historical and practical aspects of the art. (Space is limited so please be sure to register by contacting me by Thursday, May 25 (email@example.com or 716-876-5874) if you’re interested.) Other members of our community will be offering crafts, text study, walks, and other activities related to the holiday.
I hope you will join us for one or both of these joyful gatherings to celebrate the beauty of Torah in our lives.
Rabbi Drorah Setel