Let's be honest: Shavuot is sort of a mysterious holiday. In contrast to Sukkot and Pesach where there are very clear guidelines regarding what we're required to do, on Shavuot we have options and tasty food, but none of it is required/a mitzvah on the level of dwelling in the sukkah or having a seder and eating matzah.
As Ezra (4 years old at the time of this story) once asked me, Mama, is Shavuot actually about anything?
At our recent Shavuot prep event with Oakland Hebrew Day School for parents and children we tried to get a handle on some of that mystery through our learning and tinkering.
We grounded our investigation by learning b'chevrutah (in pairs) the original account of Matan Torah in Shmot/Exodus 19:1-20:18, the giving/receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, an event which is traditionally and calendrically linked to Shavuot. We also looked at two Hasidic reflections on the Jewish people's experience of this event.
The giving/receiving of the Torah can also be described more broadly as Revelation -- becoming aware of God's presence, and of our personal relationship with God. The Torah can then be understood as a framework for scaffolding or giving structure to that personal relationship.
Shavuot, like every Jewish holiday, returns us to a singular moment in our history and invites us to reenact that in some way. It also provides the opportunity for reawakening to the continuous re-occurrence on a spiritual plane of that singular event. On Shavuot we received the Torah way back in the desert, but our tradition teaches us that that giving of the Torah happens anew (or continuously) all the time. (The source for this got bumped from our source sheet, but take a look at Devarim/Deuteronomy 5:19 and accompanying Rashi if you're interested!)
As we learned the Matan Torah biblical text, each chevrutah reflected on the following question: What are three central elements that contributed to the experience of Revelation at Mount Sinai?
One parent noted that initially the introductory text to the Ten Commandments felt confusing. "There's so much going on, smoke, people being told to do this and that, and everyone is just waiting to hear the ten commandments."
To which I say, exactly! What is the story with all that smoke, the loud shofar blasts, the very specific choreography and instructions?
Another person noted that we were there alone. On our own as individuals? No, alone together.
Everyone arrived at their own nuances in answering the question of what three components were central to the Revelation experience. Torah, community, majesty of nature. Fear, Torah, Commitment/relationship.
We also wove into this the insights from the Maor V'Shemesh (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Epstein of Krakow) and the Derech Hamelech (Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, great-grandson of the Maor V'Shemesh). Each of these Rebbes reflect on how how our access to revelation arrived (and continues to arrive) through each other.
From that foundation we dove into making, with the goal of creating items that reflected our personal understanding of revelation. Ways we access that awareness already, and ways that we'd like to be more receptive to it. Reflecting on the singular event of Matan Torah, and the ongoing continuous revelation.
And then...after some mysterious alchemy involving lots of hot glue guns working over-time; delicious smelling cardamom, cloves, cinnamon and assorted greenery; many colors of clay and paper and tape; with an increasingly Master Chef level of energy; and especially, with some amazing conversations happening...we were suddenly in the presence of a whole host of wonderfully rich and unique 3D reflections of Shavuot and revelation.
A newly beloved book in our household (Beekle, by Dan Santat) concludes: And together, they did the unimaginable.
To which Ezra (now 5.5 years old) asked, what does the unimaginable mean?
While I came up with some answer at the time, these creations would have been the prefect means of explanation, as they were literally unimaginable. I could never have dreamed up what each chevrutah arrived at, and neither, I believe could they have before actually just rolling up their sleeves and getting to work, learning and creating with hands heart and brain all together.
All of which feels quite fitting for Shavuot. The great mystery remains, the impossibility of totally understanding how we are in relationship with God, even the fact that the Torah is on some level unimaginable. And yet being aware of the access points through Community, Nature and Torah, or whatever components of revelation most speak to you, allows us to walk into Shavuot and the mystery of revelation with the excitement and energy of an explorer, as we each search for the doorways that speak to us in this moment, and connected through history.
And with that, I'm just about to send you on your way into the last few days of the omer. But I can't leave you without giving a few notes on each of the creations, because they were not only unimaginable, they were also totally fabulous in ways that a single photo can only begin to convey.