Updated: Jul 8
It is the season for blintzes. And cheese cake. And icd cream. And Torah.
Shavuot, which we celebrate this Thursday night when the sun goes down, is a holiday which brings together so many of my own personal favorite things: Torah, study, dairy products, community, intellectual and spiritual exploration.
Shavuot marks a peak moment for the Jewish people-as experienced within the context of mythic time. It marks the experience of revelation. After weeks of wandering and traveling by foot through the dessert, the Israelites find themselves at the base of Sinai. Freed slaves. Homeless. They wait at the bottom of the mountain as Moses ascends. After 40 days and nights Moses returns with: tablets! And on those tablets? Laws. Ten of them. Laws for how to build a peaceful and just society. Revelation. The Divine sort. A new path for humanity. This is the origins of Torah. Our tree of life.
Shavuot marks revelation at Sinai. It marks the big reveal of life giving and affirming laws. It also marks the start of a several thousand year journey of spiritual and intellectual development through the study of our sacred texts. It might have started with the Ten Commandments but today we understand “Torah” as all Jewish wisdom, legal, ethical and spiritual texts. And also Jewish arts and culture. All the beauty our civilization has produced and passed down. We have a colorful and deep history of expanding on the Sinai moment-we have held onto and reached for meaning and fulfillment through learning for thousands of years in one way or another. Traction is expanding our minds and hearts through group learning.
This Shavuot we embrace the Kabbalistic/Mystical tradition of late night study. All over the world, this year especially through the power of social media and Zoom, Jews will be studying all night long. Kol Ami will keep it low key by limiting our late night to 9:30pm. And we will focus our learning on a theme that will lead us back to dairy products. Why so much dairy?
Blintzes. Cheesecake. Ice Cream. Where does this come into the celebration of Sinai and revelation? Judaism is ancient and as with many questions about our development there is not one answer or one teaching. We have no singular source that explains Shavuot and dairy products. The most logical explanation is that Shavuot was once an ancient spring harvest holiday. A time known for its abundance of dairy because of all the abundance of baby animals. Over time Shavuot became not just a celebration of Torah, learning, but also a celebration of Jewish culinary arts in the area of everything dairy. But I also think it goes much deeper.
Milk from a mother represents the most basic form of compassion. A baby is born to a mammal and more often than not the perfect food just flows from the breasts. Like manna from heaven, baby mammals are blessed with a food that provides for all their needs.
And Jacob said to Joseph, “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan, and He blessed me, and said to me, ‘I will make you fertile and numerous…’ And Shaddai who blesses you…blessings of the breast and womb.” Genesis 48:3-4; 49:25
One of God’a many names in the Torah and throughout Jewish tradition is El Shaddai. The “Shhhh” or the shin ש of Shaddai is the same letter shin ש one finds on most Mezzuaahs. El Shaddai means “the breast God”—yes! The great breast God. Judaism is not as patriarchal as one might have thought. Breasts, breast milk, the love and compassion which flows as food from the body of a new mother has been long associated with the Divine and Divine nurturing since ancient times.
God also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by my name Yahweh.” Exodus 6:3
Jewish learning, Torah, is like food, like blintzes and cheesecake and ice cream. God feeds us through ongoing revelation—enlightenment through the feeding of mind and spirit. Torah is truly a tree of life. But it is also like a breast. Flowing with life force. Abundant in that which nourishes our souls. A source of sustenance. Shavuot brings us the imagery of being fed by a loving and compassionate God through communal study. The dairy products are a physical symbol, one we actually get to ingest, of this love and compassion.
This year our Tikkun, our study, has the focus of compassion. Cultivating compassion. Cultivating being a reflection of God’s love and compassion. Cultivating our ethics so that they move always towards compassion. We have three guest teachers who will lead our minds and hearts through a nuanced study of compassion in Jewish thought.
Were we meeting in person there would be cheesecake for all to share. Since we are meeting in the virtual Universe this year I encourage you to explore Jewish culinary traditions of the dairy variety. Breakfast, lunch or dinner—Shavuot is an opportunity to celebrate through food. Symbolic food. Food that nurtures not just our bodies but also nurtures our connection to Judaism.
This Shavuot is going to be warm in Washington State. What about a fresh Israeli salad with feta and mint in honor of Shavuot? Our family has been enjoying the Jewish recipes of Tori Avey and the recipe for this salad can be found on Toriavey.com
Our world is fed by compassion. It is the force which enables us to survive the realities of what it means to be such a large and complex global human population. Right now, as we live through a global pandemic, understanding how God’s compassion flows through us is an essential learning. We can make our world beautiful and kind through how we feed the world our compassion. It flows through is like milk flows from the breasts of a new mother. Shavuot brings together Torah learning and dairy products by giving us an opportunity to fill our minds and bodies with that which flows from the life giving breast of the Universe.
Join us on Zoom this Thursday night as Rabbi Ruz Gulko, Dikla Kafka, Asher Hashash and myself lead an interactive and not too late Tikkun Leyl Shavuot
Kol Ami is inviting you to a scheduled Zoom meeting.
Topic: Open Yeshiva: Tikkun Leyl Shavuot Cultivating Compassion
Time: May 28, 2020 07:00 PM Pacific Time (US and Canada)
Join Zoom Meeting
Meeting ID: 961 6547 8487