April 15, 2024
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April 15, 2024
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A Shavuot-at-Home Survival Guide

Shavuot is a study in contrasts. We celebrate the eternal love that each generation has for the Torah, starting with “na’aseh v’nishma.” At the same time, the acceptance of the Torah seems coerced, as the Talmud (Shabbat 88a) famously teaches that Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ head, and gave them an ultimatum: “If you accept the Torah, great. If not, this is where you will be buried!” Many commentators offer explanations for this unusual Gemara.

Rabbi JJ Schacter notes that in the Midrash Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael in Parshat Yitro, the scene is painted very differently. The entire Jewish people stand tall and enthusiastically proclaim their devotion to the Torah. The Midrash notes the same incident in which the uprooted mountain is held over the heads of the people. But this time, the Midrash compares this incident to the verse in Shir Hashirim (2:14) that describes a dove resting in the cleft of the rock.

Rabbi Schacter explains that Chazal are telling us that this mountain was not in fact a tool of coercion, but instead was there to serve the Jewish people. Just like a dove is protected from the harsh elements by resting underneath the cleft of the rock, so too Hashem was protecting the Jewish people. The Jews, faced with a monumental decision about the Torah in the hot and brutally uncomfortable dessert, benefit from God’s kindness when He takes the mountain and holds it over them, providing shade and protection so that they can accept the Torah in comfort and joy. The truth is, concludes Rabbi Schacter, both accounts of Chazal are needed, as they highlight the fact that our relationship with Hashem has dual components of both love and fear. There is the ultimatum aspect of Torah, where we cannot exist without it, and there is the love and warmth of Torah, where our existence would be cold and meaningless without it.

Perhaps this year, as parents once again undertake the awesome responsibility of setting the tone for a very different type of Yom Tov, we can reflect on this balance. Rules and reinforcement are all vital tools in training our children both in the home and in yeshiva. But right now, as our collective work to flatten the curve keeps us in our homes, it may be a unique and powerful time to double down on the love side of the Har Sinai experience.

Being at home 24/7 in the era of COVID-19 has undoubtedly strained even the healthiest family structures. But perhaps a silver lining to the lack of privacy and blurring of the school and work time is that our children can see us living and loving a Torah life. They watch us daven and learn. They listen in on conversations when we talk about the tremendous leadership of our rabbanim in guiding us through this crisis. They watch when we reach out to a friend who could use a hello or a bowl of chicken soup. They are, hopefully, in a time more intense than any other they have experienced in their lifetimes, focusing on the ahava component of Torah, picking up from us the scent and warmth of the mitzvot, and learning to feel the presence of the Almighty. This is what Rav Soloveichik describes as what he learned from his own mother: “She taught me that there is a flavor, a scent and warmth to mitzvot. I learned from her the most important thing in life—to feel the presence of the Almighty and the gentle pressure of His hand resting upon my frail shoulders” (Tradition, Spring 1978).

In thinking about Shavuot in our homes, how do we capitalize on this experience? How do we ensure that there is both structure and serious content, as well as fun, joy and warmth? This is an exercise that many engaged in before Pesach when we were rookies in the lockdown enterprise. But I think that this preparation is harder. The Seder has always been the domain of the home. On the other hand, tikun leil shavuot is almost exclusively a world of shul batei midrash and youth departments, of endless Mishna contests and even more endless candy, of the secret thrill that a 9-year-old gets in drinking cup after cup of instant coffee mixed with way too much creamer and sugar.

What to do?

Here are a few ideas for planning an impactful Shavuot night at home that can combine both structure and warmth:

1) What’s the Program? Over the past few months when we have been away from shul, a good friend of mine has created a detailed family schedule for each Shabbat. The schedule, which includes a shticky name for their “shul” at home, goes through the Shabbos, listing times for davening, games, zemirot at the meal, activities and more. It is a very cute and fun way to create a structure for the night of Shavuot.

2) Kid Power! Perhaps each child can take 15-30 minutes and be in charge of an age- and level-appropriate learning session. This could be a shiur or simply facilitating a conversation.

3) Cheesecake at 12, Candy at 1… While the kid will miss out on some of the social experiences of spending all night in shul, you can bring the shtick home with you! Talk to the kids about what kind of food they would like on Shavuot night, and build it into the schedule the way the shuls do.

4) For Your Consideration: Learning can take so many forms, and you shouldn’t feel pressure to deliver a scholar-in-residence-worthy performance for your family. Consider finding interesting topics (what does the Torah say about friendship?) and host a discussion with some sources. Rabbi Nachum Amsel’s books, as well as NCSY’s outstanding Shavuot in a Box series, are great resources for this kind of content.

5) Set Goals: Perhaps each member of the family can set a clearly defined and achievable goal for Shavuot night. It could be learning an entire masechta of Mishnayot, or reviewing one’s shiur notes to completion.

6) What Works for You? There is no reason that you absolutely have to recreate the all-night learning structure of a shul’s tikkun leil Shavuot. If it works better for your family, focus on learning during the day, or consider a modified Shavuot night schedule that ends at 1 or 2 a.m.

Rabbi Dov Emerson is the director of teaching and learning at the Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA). He can be reached via email at [email protected], and on Twitter @dovemerson.

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