Milk, honey, mountains; what’s that all about?

Posted on Friday, May 24, 2019

If you didn’t have a chance to read your June Dateline right away, and you’re reading this blog now only to realize that Shavuot has already passed…well, there’s a very good chance you may not have even noticed you missed it. And you’re not alone. Shavuot is often overlooked by many of us in the Jewish community, for better or for worse, though I firmly believe it’s the latter. The Torah considers Shavuot, alongside Passover and Sukkot, to be one of the top three major Jewish festivals, one of the times when all Israelites would make pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate. Later, the rabbis came to think of it as the anniversary of God’s revelation to the entire Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Basically, Shavuot is the Torah’s birthday; so how can we overlook it?

As with many American Jewish traditions, there are as many practical answers as there are religious ones. Shavuot tends to fall in late May or June, when many students are deep in finals or graduations, not to mention all of the weddings and other celebrations this time of year. We’ve also just made our way through a slew of other Jewish holidays, including Passover (Shavuot means weeks, and occurs seven weeks after Passover), Yom HaShoah, and Yom HaAtzmaut, so many folks are ready for a break.

Shavuot also doesn’t have any mitzvot associated with it, since the ones in the Torah are all based on agriculture and the ancient Temple, so it’s not quite as clear to people what they’re supposed to do. We know that on Passover we have seders and eat matzah, that on Yom Kippur we fast, that on Sukkot we build a sukkah. But Shavuot? Its customs are a little more obscure. Here are a few fun ones: since the words of Torah are compared to the sweetness of milk and honey, we are taught to eat sweet dairy foods like cheesecake and blintzes. Delicious, but unusual! Others participate in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, where one stays up all night studying Torah. This custom evolved from the story that says that when the Israelites were at Sinai, they overslept and had to be awakened by Moses. As a result, many modern Jews stay up all night to study and celebrate. Fun, but not for the faint of heart (or those of us with 9:00 pm bedtimes)! But when we skip out on Shavuot, we miss a critical part of our Jewish timeline. We finished celebrating Passover and our freedom from slavery, but we don’t truly become the Jewish people until we received the Torah. We need each step of our historical process to remind us of where we came from and where we’re going.

So if you want to celebrate Shavuot this year, here are a few ways to do it!

In many Reform congregations, including our own, we celebrate Confirmation around Shavuot, honoring that our students have reached another milestone in their education and are choosing to actively participate in Jewish life. Our celebration was a little earlier this year, but if you missed it, you can watch the service in our archives at www.ti-stl.org/Watch; you’ll be so moved by the amazing words of our Confirmands. We are also participating in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot program with several other congregations, which follows the tradition of staying up all night studying Torah. You don’t have to stay up all night, but even coming for a little while can be a wonderful experience. Click the link to find out more! www.bnaiamoona.com/westcountyshavuot2019

My favorite Shavuot custom, however, is the reading of the Book of Ruth. This is one of the most beautiful stories in the Tanakh, and describes the story of the first Jew by Choice. It is an inspiring story of loyalty, of choosing one’s own path, and of the support of the Jewish community. It’s also a story that is easy to read even on your own, though if you take the time to read it, I hope you’ll reach out and let me know what you think.

However you spend Shavuot this year, may it be a day of sweetness and learning that leads you into a happy summer.

Rabbi Amy

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