Friday, May 26, 2006

Welcome to The Shefa Shavuot Resource Packet

The Shefa Network brings together Conservative activists from across many different backgrounds. The contributors to our Shavuot resource pack reflect this diversity- Rabinnical Students and lay people, Teachers and Engineers, East Coast and West Coast. They also cover a wide range of ways of engaging in Shavuot. From very tactile recipes for the holiday, to musings on revelation, to the relationship between social justice and the Omer, they present a diversity of ways to approach the holiday:

This is also meant to be an interactive resource- if something in one these pieces moves you- either because you agree or disagree with the author, join in the conversation by clicking on the "comments" link.

Chag sameach L'Kulom (Happy Holiday to Everyone)

Revelation: Accumulated Theophanies

by Noah Farkas

On Shavuot we celebrate the historical event of Mount Sinai, when God revealed the Divine Presence to the People, culminating in the finite-infinite relationship codified in the Book of the Law. Theologically speaking, the word revelation is problematic in two ways. First, it implies a dichotomy between what is revealed and unrevealed. A thing which is revealed is out in the open, known and experienced. In contrast, a God who is unrevealed is somehow hidden, separated wholly or in part from the world of humanity, and that this separation 'hides' God from the people. This theological position culminates in the concept of hester panim or God’s hidden face, leaving humanity suspended between two finalities. The first, God’s face-to-face revelation charges humanities existence with moral imperative. The second, the final redemption stands over and against humanity in judgment, either affirming or condemning humanity’s existence. Between these two points lives history, a collected account of all human interaction. This implies a moment of encounter and a history of hiddeness. Human interaction, then, is meaningless insofar as the present is concerned. Human interaction only carries the import of an uncertain future to which an accounting will be made. Here, history’s goal is only eschatological, seeking only its end. The telos of history, as we have learned, has many times forsaken the present, imparting no meaning for us.
However, chains of flourishing human experience entail encounters with moments of transcendence. These transcendent events infuse our lives at any time and in any place. Thus any notion of a hidden God seems out of place and undeveloped. It is not that God is hidden from us, but that we have not recognized God's eternal presence. In that sense, God is not hidden or eclipsed in history, but simply unrealized. To use a biblical metaphor, God is not in the thunderous clap of lighting and in the call of the shofar, but the “still, small voice” found in the background of the world. God here is unrealized because we do not see what is already in front of us. We see the lighting and thunder, but not the silence.
Secondly, the word revelation signifies some conscious act on either the part of God or the theist to reveal a hidden truth. The act of realization and the encounter with the transcendent is passive both on the part of human and the part of the Divine. An instance of realization comes when it does, at any moment, not by any willed act. When I encounter thoughts or events that bring me to realize independent worlds other than myself, I did not will the experience, but discover it. When I face that which is beyond, independent of me, I encounter that which transcends my being. Thus in my passivity I find transcendence. The Divine remains passive too, flowing eternally through world permeating every moment with miracles. In my encounter with transcendence, I find miracles of the everyday.
The accumulated theophanies found in the moment of realization are the closest phenomena we come to any substantive revelation. They inspire, guide, and focus our lives in meaningful ways. They string our daily lives together like a pearl necklace, where each pearl is a normative experience, living our lives in materiality, and the string that binds them together, connects the first pearl to the second and so forth. Taking this model, we live our lives always in potential. We can find ourselves at the foot of Mount Sinai everyday, every moment pregnant with a possible theophany.
What then of history? In a theology of realization, history constantly affirms the present. No longer a period between two finalities, history represents possibility for every present to be redemptive. God, never hidden, but only unrealized, infuses every human interaction with transcendent worth. Thus every moment in human history contains the possibility of meaning for both its time and the present. On Shavuot, when we ritualize theophany, we should celebrate the holiday both affirming the Sinai event while simultaneously affirming God in our everyday realization of the Divine Presence.

A Shavuot teaching moment

by Nance Morris Adler

A couple of years ago I was asked to teach a session for families at the beginning of our tikkun leil Shavuot. This session was for kids from about age 4 up to maybe middle school. I decided to teach about God’s various names in the Torah and in Jewish tradition and the importance of God revealing a new name to Moses at the burning bush. I began by telling the story of Moses at the burning bush and his reticence to accept God’s calling and then read Sh’mot 3:13-15. These are the verses where God reveals God’s name as “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh”. We talked for a few minutes about what life was like for the Hebrew slaves and what their reaction might be to Moses coming and announcing that “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” was going to come and help them escape their slavery. I then gave the kids and their parents a list of names of God from Jewish tradition (unfortunately in English only) and asked them to read over the names together and decide which name they would want God to have if they were going to trust him to lead them out of Egypt. This list is from the Higher and Higher curriculum by Steven M. Brown and contains about 100 appellations for God. The younger kids in particular picked names reflecting healing and nurturing. Older kids will pick names that reflect strength. I did the exercise with first graders this year without the list and having them make up names. Many of the names were actually those of their fictional superheroes but all reflected a need for God’s name to promise strength and protection. I closed by explaining to both groups that the actual meaning of the name revealed to Moses has been much debated and that it is seen as possibly meaning that God is perhaps what we need God to be and therefore the needs reflected by all their different choices could be met by one God named Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh.

I was impressed by the awareness of the first group, particularly among the younger children, of the likely physical and emotional state that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Their need for a God who was a healer and a caretaker, rather than a superhero, showed the important place God holds in their lives as a source of comfort and healing. They were more focused on the immediate needs of the people rather than how they were actually going to escape from Pharaoh. My first graders on the other hand – particularly the boys - were more concerned with the God that is celebrated in Shirat Yam – God Man of War. Considering the developmental state of the group, this was not really a surprise. God with light sabers to fend off Pharaoh and his army is not a surprising response from little boys who spend all of recess playing “Star Wars”. Perhaps the presence of parents in the first group made them a bit more reflective and a little less silly, but I think that their response are a truer reflection of our real expectations of God. When I use this list of God’s names with 9th graders they are almost universally repelled by “God Man of War” and universally drawn to names that imply God is a maker of Peace. Children, who are reliant on adults to care for them and to make the world a safe place, tend to expect the same from God or, especially as teens, they may find little use for God in their lives. Quite rightly, I believe, they identify the Hebrew slaves of Exodus as being emotionally the same as children, as they prove to be in the Wilderness, and attach their own expectations of God to this group.

An Offering of Grain

by Anne Pettit

"When you enter the land that I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He shall elevate the sheaf before the Lord for acceptance in your behalf. . . . And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering. . . you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. . . . On that same day you shall hold a celebration; it shall be a sacred occasion for you; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a law for all time in all you settlements, throughout the ages.

"And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your God."
Leviticus 23:10-11; 15-16; 21-22

The harvest festival of Shavuot, celebrating the bounty of the land God has given us and the revelation of Torah, and the commandment to care for the poor are inextricably linked. Although we do not have the opportunity to leave the corners and the gleanings our fields for the poor, we can still bring an offering of grain to assist the hungry in our communities.

Please bring a shopping bag of non-perishable grain-based items to:
[Insert time and location here]

Suggested items include pasta, breakfast cereal (hot or cold), cookies, crackers, pretzels, granola bars, rice, corn meal, flour, packaged convenience meals or side dishes, and anything else you can think of that is based on grain

Some Additional Thoughts

The first page is intended to be used to publicize a Shavuot food drive with a grain-based theme. It could be adjusted to suit the needs of a given community. For example, facilities that prepare meals can often use basic "raw ingredients" more effectively than individuals or families that do not have cooking knowledge or access to cooking facilities. In areas with large populations for whom beans are a favorite food, dried and/or canned beans and other "kitniyot" might be included.

The commandment of peah, leaving the corner of the field and its gleanings for the poor, is mentioned twice in Leviticus; once (Lv. 19:9) as part of the "holiness code" in Parashat Kedoshim, and once directly after the commandments concerning the observance of Shavuot, which underscores the importance at a time of celebration of ensuring that all, including the poor and the stranger in the land, can share the joyousness of the occasion.

50 Steps Toward an End to Hunger:
Traditionally, the 50 days of the omer are considered 50 steps on the path to God's revelation at Sinai; 50 steps toward holiness. To reinforce the significance of the counting of the omer, congregations and communities may wish to encourage members to give tzedakah nightly when the omer is counted (or before the onset of Shabbat/Yom Tov). Families or community children's programs could design and make a special tzedakah box for this purpose. Just before or after Shavuot, the money collected would be donated, individually or communally, to a local, national or international organization fighting hunger and poverty.

for a copy of this template in Word, click here

Taste and See

by Rebecca Boggs

Uniting Taste and Text on Shavuot
(with a recipe for galaktopita zarka, baked cream custard)

Ta’amu u-r’u ki tov Adonai • Taste and see that Adonai is good (Psalm 34:9)

Shavuot as z’man matan torateinu, the season of the giving of our Torah, puts the revelation of divine words and divine text at the center of our celebration. But it is also an agricultural festival of first fruits (chag ha-bikkurim), a time to acknowledge our gratitude for this bounty and to enjoy it! Though we often think of the first night of Shavuot as a time devoted to text, we shouldn’t forget about the power of taste: some of my most vivid tikkun leil Shavuot memories involve symbolically significant foodstuffs, which have been a jumping-off (or jumping-in) point for study & discussion. I share them here, hoping that they might enliven your Shavuot celebrations and that it will inspire others to recount and create others!

• steamed milk with honey & spices
Not only did this lovely warm drink keep us going through the dark chill of the Oxford night, but it also put the words of Torah about Israel as a “land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 33:3)–eretz zavat halav u'dvash—literally in our mouths.
Later I learned that one midrash explains the phrase "honey and milk are under your tongue" (Song of Songs 4:11) as a reference to the study of Torah (Devarim Rabbah 7:3).

• cookies in the shape of the Torah scroll
On the first day of Shavuot, we read selections from Ezekiel’s vision as the haftarah (Ezekiel 1:1-28, 3:12). In preparation for this event, one friend had us read and discuss the first three chapters of Ezekiel, including the following verses:
He said to me, “Mortal, eat what is offered you; eat this scroll, and go speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat, as he said to me, “Mortal, fill your stomach and your belly with this scroll that I give you.” I ate it, and it tasted as sweet as honey to me.
(Ezekiel 3:1-3)
When Ezekiel ate, we ate—and it was sweet!
I’d say it’s the thought that counts here: you could get a cookie cutter & do icing to get ones that look more accurately representational, but when I made them I just took my favorite chocolate-chip recipe and made shapes that were at least vaguely reminiscent of a sefer Torah with the etzim (wooden rollers) emerging on top and bottom. (The scroll in Ezekiel is not in fact a Torah scroll but a scroll on which are written “lamentations, dirges, and woes” [2:10]; discuss!)

• a Mount Sinai of flavored cream cheese with raisins, dates, & other goodies hidden inside it
The shape speaks for itself, but the rest may fuel speculation while sating hunger. Are there ten kinds of hidden treasures, for the Ten Commandments? Is there significance in the fact that they’re not readily visible—are we having to work for those nuggets of significance in our experience of Torah? And oy, what if you like the raisins but are allergic to the nuts?
A textual connection that’s often used to link Shavuot and dairy foods in general seems all the more appropriate here for a mountain of cheese. The term har gavnunim (“many-peaked mountain”) in Psalm 68:16 allowed commentators to link Mount Sinai to gevinah, cheese (Shemot Rabbah 2:4). There’s a nice illustration at , but the mountain isn’t cheese there—unless it’s green cheese!
This particular cheese mountain came surrounded by crackers (reminiscent of the shape of the tablets? forming the boundary beyond which the Israelites were not supposed to cross [Exodus 19:12]?). You could use matzah instead, to emphasize the connection between Pesach and Shavuot—that the revelation at Sinai is the culmination of the Exodus. North African communities combined this idea with the first one above, eating matzah shredded into bowls of milk and honey. [see]

• a creamy sweet custard traditional among the Jews of Ioannina in Greece, on which I outlined (or tried to!) the shape of the tablets Moses brought down from Sinai.
For this one, offer your own interpretation as you make or eat it: see recipe below!
Mine? Pluralism is tasty! The fact that it comes from a different tradition makes a nice addition to the blintzes and cheesecake that have become staples of Shavuot celebration for many American Jews. (You can read here about cheesecake:

• (fake-meat) buffalo wings + blue-cheese dressing
This taste treat emerges from a more complicated exegesis (from friend Ben Begleiter) involving the importance of "wings" in a variety of Shavuot-related texts:
1) the wings of eagles, kanfei nesharim
“You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me” (Exodus 19:4). So we read in our Torah reading for the first day of Shavuot, reminding us of the beginning of this process in the Exodus from Egypt.
2) the wings of God’s presence, kanfei ha-shechinah
In Ruth 2:12, Boaz says to Ruth, “May you have a full recompense from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have sought refuge!” (asher ba’t lakhasot takhat k’nafav). Those who join the Jewish people as converts are brought takhat kanfei ha-shekhinah, under the wings of God’s presence (see e.g. Shabbat 31a).
3) the “wing” (corner, hem, skirt) of Boaz’s garment
In Ruth 3:9, Ruth asks Boaz to spread the corner or “wing” of his garment over her in protection and acknowledgment of his status as a redeeming kinsman.
Hence, buffalo wings make an appropriate addition to the Shavuot menu!
But what about the blue-cheese dressing that traditionally accompanies them? It, too, can be given an exegetical twist: just as the spicy buffalo wings are tempered by the creamy dressing, so do we ask that God’s milder attribute of mercy, rachamim, temper the more fiery attribute of justice, din.
A variation on this winged theme, from a friend who hails from south of the Mason-Dixon line and has a dairy allergy, is her annual Shavuot fried chicken lunch. I imagine the children of Israel would have been delighted to take this treat, accompanied by hush puppies and a pareve pecan pie, out of their picnic hampers during their encampment in the wilderness of Sinai.

When Moses comes down from Sinai and reads out God’s commands to the people, they reply Na’aseh v’nishma: we shall do and we shall listen, hear, understand (Exodus 24:7). From this response we learn that full comprehension may come only after we have dedicated ourselves to action: we enter into experience—of ritual, of the physical world, of performing mitzvot--and through our experiences we come to understand. On this Shavuot, let us unite our senses and our seykhl, body and brain, in joining tastes to texts so that we can indeed “taste and see” how the divine force reveals itself.

Recipe from Cookbook of the Jews of Greece by Nicholas Stavroulakis (Lycabettus Press)
Galaktopita zarka (Baked cream custard)

In the dialect of Ioannina, zarka means naked, and here describes a custard cream pie that has no shell or covering. As the word galaktos indicates, in Ioannina this was once made with heavy cream, which is perhaps richer than desirable today. A good compromise can be achieved with 1 cup milk to 1 cup heavy cream.

3 eggs, well beaten
2 cups milk (or 1 cup each milk and heavy cream)
1/4 cup sugar
Vanilla extract to taste
Additional sugar and cinnamon

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Beat the eggs until very frothy. Add the milk, sugar, and vanilla, and mix in well. Pour into a well-buttered deep 9x9 inch pan and bake until set, about 45 minutes-1 hour.
Remove from oven and cool. Then chill in the refrigerator. Sprinkle liberally with sugar and cinnamon before serving. Serves 4-6.

A few of the many links with information & recipes on Shavuot foods in Jewish communities across the world:

Another fun footnote:
Plenty of Jews are fans of satiric songster Tom Lehrer, but fewer know that this holiday gets name-checked in his song “Hanukkah in Santa Monica,” where “Shavuos” rhymes with “East St. Louis.” You can hear it here:

Discover why this night is different from all other nights.

by Susan Cetlin

Last year, the chairperson of our ritual committee and me in the role of chairperson of our spirituality committee spent many evenings designing a synagogue based family Shavuot seder. We wrote an actual Shavuot Hagaddah for the evening, which was led by our Rabbi and Cantor.

Our Haggadah was loosely based on ideas from an article in Hadassah Magazine (May 1988) by Gershom Gorenberg called "A Primer for Shavuot" which described one family's Shavout traditions and other sources including chapters from Ellen Frankel's book, "Sacred Therapy: Jewish Spiritual Teachings on Emotional Healing and Inner Wholeness" and Mindy Ribner's book "Kabbalah Month by Month: A Year of Spiritual Practice and Personal Transformation."

The seder, modeled after the Passover seder, included blessings over the first fruits, dipping the fruit in yogurt and date honey (representing the "land of milk and honey"), explanation of the Shavuot seder plate which included fruit, date honey, yogurt, water, tomato, flowers and barley/wheat), singing Mi Chamokah and Miriam's Song, Am Yisrael, telling of the Maggid, asking and answering four questions about Shavuot and singing a Shavuot Ma Nishtanah, pouring wine, Torah reading and midrashim, yachatz (breaking the tablets), searching and reassembling the tablets, reading the Ten Commandments, reading excerpts from the Book of Ruth, and telling a story by Mindy Ribner about receiving. The seder culminated with a festive meal with traditional Shavuot food. There was much singing and discussion. The broken pieces of the tablets were hidden and the children searched for the pieces and put them together into a Ten Commandment puzzle.

Following the festive potluck meal, our Rabbi led a Tikkun Leil Shavuot. There were also squirt guns for the kids and lots of fresh spring flowers decorating each table.

The seder was a big hit and we hope to make it an annual tradition.

The Big Bang at Sinai

by Andrew Halpert

According to our tradition, Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai by God to Moses. As moderns, this image of the Divine handing the Torah to Moses is an image we struggle with, or disregard completely. From Mel Brooks’ parody of Moses on the mountain, “I bring you the 15 (smash), 10 Commandments”, to ever growing mountains of critical scholarship, we know that revelation at Sinai, like most of the events recorded at Sinai simply could not have happened as the bible records. I would like to suggest that Shavuot, perhaps uniquely for our “Biblical” holidays, celebrates an event that must have happened, and I would like to use our understanding of the Big Bang to do so.
The Big Bang makes clear the amazing power and lasting impacts of short, but dramatic moments. The initial stages of the big bang lasted tiny fractions of a second. In the time it takes you to read this sentence, most of the major expansion of the universe is thought to have been completed. But expansion wasn’t the only important thing to occur in that moment. Concepts that we take as absolute givens- the forces of nature, the dimensions of space, and the direction of time, were determined in those brief moments. Billions of years later, we can observe the remnants of it everywhere. The crackle on your radio between stations is your radio detecting the echoes of the original big bang. Much of our relatively complex understanding of what occurred in the Big Bang comes from what we have been able to gleam from those echoes.
Every Friday night as we light the Shabbat candles, or sit down to Torah study, or read divrei Torah online, we ourselves form echoes of an ancient moment that had enormous transformative power. How the moment of Revelation occurred has been blurred by the background noise of history, but the echoes are clear. Somewhere in the history of the people that today calls themselves Am Yisrael (the people of Israel), was a moment in which this people received the Torah. The moment might have been brief, like our Sinai tradition tells it, or it could have taken thousands of years, but we know that at some point, we received and accepted the Torah as our core, divine, text.
There is of course a crucial difference between our echoes of Sinai and the echoes of the Big Bang. As time passes, the energy of the Big Bang begins to dissipate, and its echoes become fainter. The echoes of Sinai do not live by the same rules. When we proclaim the Sh’ma, or recite Kiddush before a meal, we can imagine ourselves amplifying the signal of a tiny moment that history would have forgotten long ago were we not here to bear witness to it. Just as everything we see is a remnant of the Big Bang, or as Carl Sagan reminded us, “We are starstuff”, as practicing Jews we are also the living proof of revelation at Sinai. Chag Sameach.

Interesting Shavuot Links

Some other interesting Shavuot Links:
A great introduction and overview of Shavuot
Great Resource for family programming
Shavuot from the Guide to Jewish Religious Practice by Rabbi Isaac Klein
Tips on staying up through late night study
JTS's Shavuot Resource Page
A nice discussion of tzedakah based on Ruth, by Rabbi David Rosenn
MP3's of a reading of Ruth
Creative ideas for celebrating Shavuot
Great articles on Shavuot
USY Shavuot Program and Skit
KOACH Blintz Recipe
USY Shavuot Introduction
Ideas for bringing Shavuot into the public square