As a young child in my birthplace of Brooklyn, New York, I knew that “Shavuos,” as my grandparents pronounced it, was a Jewish holiday. I knew that this holiday generally fell each May. I knew that, unlike Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, it was a holiday during which the local schools remained open, even if a few of my more observant classmates might not appear at their desks.
Beyond that, what distinguished it from other Jewish holidays, apart from its length (one day, instead of Chanukah’s eight) or cuisine (a “dairy dinner” capped off by cheesecake at my grandparents’ home, rather than, say, a matzah-filled Passover seder), was unclear. Yes, in introductory Hebrew School, I was surely told that this holiday commemorated God’s giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Torah to the Jewish people. But the words did not yet hold much meaning.
When I was nine, my parents and sister and I moved to a New Jersey suburb, where we joined a Reform congregation. There, my understanding of the holiday — which I began to call “Shavuot”— expanded. I acquired a better, if still incomplete, grasp of what happened on Mount Sinai and what it meant for Jewry. I also learned to count Shavuot among the major harvest festivals and pilgrimage holidays. And for a number of years, I attended a series of Confirmation services, culminating with the one on Shavuot 5745 (1985), when, just turned 16, I was among the Confirmands.
I still possess a bound, printed copy of that service. From the opening lines, it affirmed what we’d come to understand as the holiday’s connection to the act of study: “Let us affirm our faith in Torah,” we Confirmands intoned. “Our people’s legacy of learning and faith.”
Tucked inside my service copy is a printout of remarks that I delivered before the congregation that day. My speech concluded with this story:
“Then Isaac asked the Eternal: King of the World, when you made the light, you said that it was good; when you made the heaven and earth, you said that they were good, and of every herb and beast, you said that they were good, but when you made us in your image, why Lord, did you not call humanity good? And God answered him: Because you I have not yet perfected. All other things are completed; they cannot grow. But humanity is not complete; you have yet to grow. Then I will call you good.”
As this Shavuot approaches — the holiday begins Saturday evening — those words resonate. I am keenly aware that all these decades later, I remain imperfect. I’m incomplete. I have yet to grow — particularly where Jewish learning is concerned.
I’m trying. Two years ago at Shavuot, thanks to a re-immersion in text study and a new appreciation for the Book of Ruth’s relevance for the holiday, I wrote and published a series of poems inspired by that story.
Just last year, I attended my first “Tikkun Leil Shavuot,” an all-night study session. I lasted until 3 am, migrating from classroom to classroom, learning about American Jewish history and Israeli history and still more about Shavuot — breaking for cheesecake around midnight —before succumbing to my droopy eyelids.
This year, I am learning still. I’m grateful for Senator Joe Lieberman’s recent appearance on the Unorthodox podcast, during which he discussed his new book With Liberty & Justice: The 50-Day Journey from Egypt to Sinai. He made convincing cases for Shavuot to occupy more of the major-holiday limelight than it has traditionally, and for it to be appreciated less as an isolated event and more as a conclusion to that central story begun with Passover.
I’m also trying to track down a citation for the God-and-Isaac conversation referenced above. So far, I’ve been led to understand that it comes from Edmond Fleg (1874-1963), based on traditional commentators.
This much is certain: On Saturday, I’ll begin my day — like many of you, surely — watching the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. But when evening comes, my attention will turn to Shavuot.
Whether I’m attending another all-nighter or reading Senator Lieberman’s book or observing Shavuot in some other way remains to be decided.
On Sunday, I’ll celebrate the Confirmation of a young woman in my family’s next generation. At some point, there will be cheesecake.
I’ll still be imperfect. But I’ll continue to grow.