By Hazzan Ben Tisser
Shavuot is perhaps the least observed of the three Pilgrimage Festivals (regalim). Perhaps it’s because it’s the least understood. Let me share with you a new understanding I experienced just this week.
I spent the beginning of this week in Florida. Robyn and I woke up very early Monday morning to take engagement photos against the beautiful sunrise on the beach. Now, any of you who remember taking professional photographs—for any simcha, or perhaps for professional purposes, or maybe even just family portraits—will, I’m sure, recall that while it’s a beautiful thing to capture special points in our lives, it can become very tiresome pretty quickly (especially before that first cup of coffee!). “A little bit to the left…chin down…lean into him…put your right hand on her left shoulder…pretend you’re smiling…and on the count of three, say…’We’re getting married!’” I must admit, after the first 25 minutes (and still with no coffee), I was ready to crawl back into bed. And then something changed. Robyn looked into my eyes and said something to the effect of, “Can you believe that exactly a year ago yesterday we didn’t know that the other existed, and in just about eight months we’ll be married?”
I’m not sure if it was her words or the way she looked at me, but all of a sudden the experience of staring into a blinding light and holding a smile became something incredibly beautiful. It became an opportunity to embrace a person I love and respect deeply, and to recall so many beautiful moments in our shared journey—many happy, and some sad. And in that instant, I became re-engaged in the task at hand, recognizing what we were truly doing on the beach so early in the morning.
I want to propose to you (pun absolutely intended!) that Shavuot is the same sort of reminder, and thus perhaps one of the most important observances on our calendar. The rabbis understand Shavuot as the wedding between G-d and the Jewish People, for tradition holds that on Shavuot we experienced Revelation at Sinai, entering into an eternal covenant with G-d.
Shavuot comes at the end of seven weeks of counting—the period known as the Omer, beginning with the 2nd day of Pesach. During that period of time, very similarly to my schedule earlier in the week, we have some highs, we have some lows, and then there is the seemingly mundane task of counting the day toward the end of the evening ma’ariv service. And yet, when we get through the highs of Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Lag Ba’omer and Yom Yerushalayim—as well as the lows of Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron—we get the gift of a beautiful reminder to look back on our shared history…on the very thing which brought us together—as a community, and as a people in deep and everlasting relationship with G-d.
So on this Shavuot, I offer us all the challenge to make it about more than blintzes. Take a moment and think back. Think back to the stories of the Torah in which we went from tribes of wandering Arameans to a great nation enslaved, from a newly-freed people to a people with a land and a language and traditions…and from individuals walking this earth alone to people in relationship with each other—be it in romantic relationships or relationships with our families, our friends, or our larger communities. Invite people to your table, make Kiddush together, and share those moments which made the year since last Shavuot so meaningful. Share collective memories, reminding us the precious nature of each and every moment that passes. I believe that, in addition to cheesecake and study, these are the most powerful rituals we can observe on this festival of memory.