There’s no question that Shavuos falls at the very bottom of the Yom Tov stress scale; no marathon cleaning, no sukkah to build. Just sit back and enjoy the cheesecake. But buried beneath the layers of cream cheese, chocolate and lotus butter lies a delicious truth; eating cheesecake is a minhag, not a mitzvah. Alongside this delicious truth lies another truth: we concentrate a lot on the cheesecake because Shavuos doesn’t really have any specific physical mitzvos. At first blush, this lack of mitzvos is surprising, shocking even. How is it possible that on the day that commemorates our acceptance of the Torah we are actually commanded to do…nothing.
One of the challenges of being an FFB (frum from birth) is that it’s possible, even unwittingly, to masquerade as an observant Jew. For those of us born into the fold, religious ritual is akin to breathing; we were raised using the mantra of our forefathers at Har Sinai, naaseh v’nishma – we will do and then we will understand. But not all of us ever gain that understanding, and so the rituals become habits, a lifestyle, a culture; a cloak of religiosity that forever remains a superficial layer, and no matter how intricate and beautiful and dense that cloak may become, it never provides internal warmth. I recently had a conversation with someone who became frum in her late teens. We were talking about clothing which invariably led to a dialogue about tznius and some other mitzvos. I was jealous of her enthusiasm and of how her eyes shone when she talked about yiddishkeit. At the end of our discussion she gently handed me three words that I tucked away for further contemplation: “I chose this.”
On most other holidays it is easy to feign observance. Eat matzah, sit in the sukkah, hear shofar. It is possible on all these holidays to never think about what you’re doing, to never link the physical to the spiritual; the sheer busyness of the ritual can potentially disconnect the action from reaction. On Shavuos, it’s not so easy to hide behind ritual. And so we go back to my earlier question, why aren’t there any specific mitzvos associated with Shavuos, the holiday which celebrates accepting the mitzvos? Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Hoffman remarked in his commentary on Vayikra 23 that the obligation on Shavuos to commemorate Matan Torah is so broad and extensive that it’s impossible to reduce it to symbolic ritual. How do you physically recreate Hashem giving us the Torah?
There are those who say that we have such strong minhagim on Shavuos to make up for the lack of ritual, hence the emphasis on tikun leil Shavuos, cheesecake, and flowers. Although learning Torah is indeed a mitzvah, it is not technically linked to the first night of Shavuos, and in fact the chapter in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch about Shavuos relates to the Yom Tov davening but not to any specific mitzvos of the day. Although the minhagim add a great amount of flavor and beauty to the holiday, minhagim are not mitzvos, even though we often treat them as such.
In Gemara Shabbos 88a we are faced with the troubling image of Hashem holding the mountain over Bnei Yisrael and telling them, “If you accept the Torah, good; if not, this will be your grave.” How does this seemingly coercive statement align with our understanding of naaseh v’nishma? What happened to our free will; didn’t we choose to become Hashem’s nation? There are many ways to interpret this, but I saw something very beautiful on the Chabad website. The revelation at Sinai exposed the divine truth and faced with this reality which was so clearly our sacred path, we had no choice but to accept; any other choice would have been unthinkable after experiencing Hashem’s glory.
Every Shavuos we are called upon to relive Matan Torah. The lack of physical mitzvos is liberating, a gift. Unburdened by logistics and unfettered by the limitations of time, we again face the shadow of the mountain that looms overhead. But our modern mountain is different. It is a mere whisper of the original, an echo, a tiny flicker, visible only to its seekers. As a younger woman I experienced Shavuos as a respite, an easy holiday that made few demands. After emerging from the fog of early motherhood I was spiritually adrift. I had neglected my neshama more than a little bit; it needed care and nurturing, but I wasn’t sure how or what to feed it. I was an adult now, more weary, more jaded, and the things that worked ten years prior were now just childish platitudes. I had grown however, in other ways. I was bolder, less shy, and so I decided to take a leap into unknown territory; I volunteered to speak at a women’s shiur on Shavuos. Looking back I realize how brash and brave and stupid I was. Traditionally, most of the shiurim were text based; not only had I not cracked a sefer in years, many of the women who spoke were either Torah educators or brilliant women who regularly attended rigorous shiurim. What had I done? It took me weeks to prepare for a fifteen minute speech. I started out by reading a Robert Frost poem and then linked it into some kind of discussion about the differences between Rus and Orpah, the details of which elude me. I was shaking a little when I was done, but also spiritually energized in a way that I hadn’t been in years.
On Shavuos night, look up at the sky. Tilt your head a little and lower your eyelids to half-mast; if you are a seeker of the divine or a hunter of truth, the shadow of the mountain slowly materializes, piercing its way through the inky veil of night. But some of us are blind to such fanciful notions; hungering only for the corporeal, delighting in sweet milky concoctions and fragrant blossoms whose hue and fragrance overwhelm the senses, denying entry to anything cerebral. We are told that the mountain calls to us every day in a small, still voice; but life is noisy and we are willfully deaf, we swat the voice away like a pesky fly. On Shavuos, though, the clamor subsides; in this brief and holy slice of time we can see, we can hear the mountain. Look up; the mountain hovers. It is both terrifying and beautiful, menacing yet resplendent. It asks you to choose: life or death.
The midrash tells us that every Jewish soul was present at Matan Torah. This memory lies in the deepest recesses of the subconscious, an elusive dream that dissipates at the break of every dawn. For forty-nine days we coax our neshamas back to life, gently probing its innermost strata for the tiny golden key that will unlock our hidden potentiality.
I am careful to count Sefirah every night, to be mindful of the passing days, to make the minutes count. On Shavuos night I look up at the sky. I tremble slightly; the ancient reverberations at Sinai echo in my veins. I pull out the three words that have been languishing in my pocket and reply to the mountain’s call: “I choose this.”