Whether your connection to Jewish celebrations comes through brisket-making Ashkenazi lineage, Moroccan-heritage lamb and couscous tagine or Sephardic pastelicos (meat and rice pies), to name but a few meaty Jewish cultural delights, the upcoming chag (holyday) of Shavu’ot puts a full stop to the rich, slow-cooked fleishig/meaty festival meals. After counting the Omer each day for seven weeks (sheva shavu’ot), between the departure from slavery in Egypt until the arrival at the foot of Mount Sinai to encounter awesome revelation, to forge an interdependent communal covenant for all time and to receive Torah/guidance directing our freedom with shared sacred purpose, we celebrate Shavu’ot’s transformative grandeur gastronomically with milchigs/diary. Yes – with blintzes, cheese kugel, cheesecake, Syrian kelsonnes (cheese filled dough), Moroccan siete cielos (seven layer cake) – Shavu’ot’s eating is unlike any other Jewish feast.
There are various explanations for this dairy diet – a taste of the “land flowing with milk and honey” to which the Israelites are journeying; a safe bet before the Israelites have learned the new laws for preparing kosher meat. Right now, I am most compelled by the notion that we eat a lighter meal in order to be awake and alert to receive Torah.
According to Midrash, once they arrived at Mount Sinai, the Israelites prepared for three days. They went to bed early on the night before Revelation so they would be well rested for this momentous occasion, but on the cusp of the awesome moment, they overslept. Can you imagine?! Approaching the greatest moment in the life of the Jewish people and sleeping through your alarm?! The custom of staying up all night on Erev Shavu’ot (the evening of May 28th this year), engaged in Jewish learning and eating a lighter meal is a tikkun, a repairing of the Israelites’ mistake and lost opportunity.
It’s valuable to note that we often fall asleep when the reality we are in is overwhelming. I am noticing how tired I am during these weeks of the pandemic. I can be engaged in cooking and teaching, listening to the news and attending to daily tasks and feel fine. There are moments in which I feel uplifted, connected to others and peaceful. I have been deliberate about practicing gratitude, meditating and praying, taking walks and marveling in smells and colours of spring and then out of the blue I am suddenly hit with exhaustion. One moment I am focused on the navigations, limitations and joys of living and working at home and the next moment, I am awake to the tragedy, extreme vulnerability and sadness around the world at this time. It is overwhelming and exhausting.
Being awake to joy and awe can be as challenging, as overwhelming as being awake to pain and heartbreak. Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rotenberg (Poland, d.1866) taught, “It (the voice at Sinai) did not stop. For these voices still exist today as they did back then, but to hear them we need the proper preparations, like then.” This year, there is new Torah to learn about being awake – spiritual and moral awakening. I want to approach the tikkun leyl Shavuot, the repair of the evening of Shavuot, in a way that combines communal joyous celebration of awakening to learning and deep wisdom, sacred encounter and tasting cheese-filled lightness and sweetness, alongside the insights of awakening to the vast economic divide, grief and vulnerability this pandemic is starkly revealing. This year, I want to invite us to eat light and stay awake to listen for the imagery, poetry and mitzvot/sacred actions of the Torah of compassion, the Torah of social and environmental repair, the Torah of inner strength, sensitivity and interconnected Being. Let’s to prepare to open our ears, open our hearts and minds, enliven our bodies and awaken our consciousness to be open to the Torah which is being revealed this year. This time, we don’t want to stay asleep.
Please join us on the evening of May 28th for Shavuot learning, discussions and cheese blintzes. Details coming soon.