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A Different Shavuot This Year

May 24, 2020 | by Emuna Braverman

With none of the communal activities that normally accompany this holiday, we have a new kind of opportunity to appreciate the Torah.

We are going away for Shavuot. Armed with our CDC-approved disinfectant, we have rented a house near the water along the California coast. In the past I would never have considered this. Leave the community for Shavuot? But this year there is no community interaction. Not going to shul on Shavuot? There is no shul. Even the gathering of women I like to host Shavuot morning can't take place. All the usual structures of the holiday have been removed – except of course, the cheesecake, and cheese babka, and cheese blintzes…

Like all holidays, Shavuot is meant to be observed within a community. While the Passover Seder takes place in the home, Shavuot night usually sees synagogues filled with people learning all night – and even a little shul hopping for different classes and different teachers. The streets are abuzz even in the middle of the night as eager students throng to their preferred study location. This year the streets will be empty.

There will be no communal learning, no competition over which synagogue has the best midnight snacks, no difficult decisions over which class to attend, no friends to invite to share in the meal, no pre-Shavuot bake sales to raise money for worthy causes, no contest over creative cheesecake flavors.

It will be different. It will be difficult. Like everything during this time, it will be a challenge. And, like everything during this time, it will be an opportunity. We just have to determine what that is.

I’ve identified a few that (I hope) will work for me. As opposed to community learning, this year Shavuot can be a chance for family learning – in all sorts of permutations. All of us together, with my daughter, with my son, with my husband, with my grandchildren that are in lockdown with us – there are a lot of possible permutations. This can lead to new ways to learn, new topics to learn (suited to my learning partner) and new ideas.

Even though we may feel like we get a lot of family time under our current circumstances, the time on Yom Tov is different. During the week we’re distracted. We’re still trying to work. We’re all exhausted by the extra effort required to teach, listen, interact in any way over zoom. We’re trying to be creative and engaged and we’re giving it our all. Shavuot will give us more relaxed time with each other, more focused time with each other, time to learn, grow – and even play some games.

But, most of all (at least for me), Shavuot is always a time of introspection which I hope will be facilitated by the lack of community (not that I don’t wish it were otherwise!) and our anticipated proximity to the ocean. It’s a time for contemplation and appreciation. As I ponder the receiving of the Torah, I can’t help but reflect back on my life and, years later, still marvel at where I’ve ended up.

From small town, Canada, where I was the only Jew in my 2200-person high school (until my younger brother came) to big city, America where I've been a rebbetzin for 37 years (gulp). Such a journey would not be possible without the Almighty’s help. And I owe all the joy and meaning and blessing in my life to Him and His Torah.

When I sit down to learn Shavuot, I take pleasure in the richness, breadth and depth of Torah and I am so grateful to my teachers who opened my eyes to the Torah’s wonders and to the Almighty who gave us this gift.

I don’t usually express this gratitude. I may frequently take it for granted. It’s just an instinctive part of my life. But Shavuot is the time to look at it anew. On Shavuot we receive the Torah anew. In fact, we should feel like that every day. But weak, distracted, and selfish as we are (I speak for myself), that is rarely the case.

Shavuot is that opportunity – to experience the Torah through fresh eyes, with excitement and appreciation.

Even though the expected external structure of the holiday will be missing this year, the essence of it will be present. And I pray that I will really be able to focus on it.

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