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I am so sad for Shavuot. It’s almost over before it gets started! The upcoming festival is so low key, with no big seder, no temporary abode on the deck or backyard. Can’t we come up with something a bit, dare I say, meaty for the holiday of blintzes?
Do I hear a call to action for an evening around the table with friends and family to exchange lofty thoughts of Torah? Perhaps you need a guiding script to get the ball rolling. In that vein I introduce to you the Shavuot Haggadah — a bit shorter than the one we just read, and not nearly as familiar.
Immediately after the kiddush is recited, open the door and extend this offer:
“Let all who are hungry for knowledge, come and eat.” As the verse teaches, “They will hunger not for bread, nor thirst for water, but to hear the word of God.”
Tonight we are all students. Next year we shall be teachers. This year we are still learning. Next year may we have the more knowledge to share.
The youngest stands and asks:
Mah Nishtanah. How is this night of Shavuot different from all other nights? On all other nights we go to sleep, some on time, some not. But on this night we all remain awake; studying the Holy Books and waiting to receive the Torah, as if at Sinai.
On all other festival nights we eat many kinds of delicacies including chicken soup, meat balls and brisket. Tonight we eat only dairy — a blintz, a boureka, a slice of cheesecake.
On all other nights we exchange words of Torah; some discuss the Torah portion, some the commentaries. Tonight we discuss the very giving of the Torah itself.
On all other nights we eat sitting or leaning. On this night we are sure to sit up straight lest we lean too far and fall asleep — let it not be said that we slept through the giving of the Torah…again!
We were slaves in Egypt bereft of life and of Torah. The almighty took us out from there on the wings of eagles to bring us to the foot of Sinai. And there we waited and prepared for the awesome day. The mountain was full of smoke, there was thunder and lightning. With the sound of the shofar we all trembled. And though we all stood there in fright and though we all remember the day as if it were yesterday, we have a commandment to remind our children and our children’s children that we stood at Sinai, you and I. And the more we tell it over, the more praised we will be.
It happened that as the Almighty was finishing the writing of the Torah, that Moshe arrived to receive it, those final crowns affixed on the top, what purpose are they? The Lord answered by revealing the scene of Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. Though you, Moshe, may not understand each and every nuance of these letters, your students will, for all students of Torah are your students, and this sage, he will interpret each and every crown, though his fate will be to give his life for this very Torah.
It is told as well that on that very occasion of the receiving of the Torah, when Moshe went heavenward, ready to accept the Torah and carry it down, the angels conspired to keep it from him and from all human beings to save it for themselves. Moshe’s rejoinder to the seraphs? Do angels work, that they need a day of rest? Do angels have parents that they must honor Father and Mother? At that, the angels conceded to the Holy One, perhaps the Torah should indeed go to the People Israel.
Now point to either the cheese blintzes or in the direction of the cheesecake and recite:
The Torah is sweet as honey, just as these are sweet throughout. Just as milk is white and pure, so too are the words of Torah. Just as milk and honey when combined do not injure the body, so the words of Torah bring only healing to the body and to the soul.
Now take the first of many a cup of water in hand.
The Torah is compared to water, it too cleanses, it leaves the high and cleaves to the low, keeps best not in silver vessels but in the modest earthenware vessels. As with water, we all are anxious to drink of its clarity, as water brings forth growth and nurtures all, so does Torah. Drink it with thirst.
The Torah is taught to four kinds of students.
The sponge that soaks it all up, the funnel that receives it and passes it intact, the strainer that separates out the dregs like from wine, and the sieve, which distills the fine flour from the coarse. Which kind of student are you? No matter which, be sure to find the teacher who brings the best out of your learning.
How many goodly favors did the Holy One do for us at Sinai?
The Holy One brought us out on the wings of an eagle. We camped as one at the foot of the mountain while smoke poured out. Thunder and lightning brought forth terror as the world held still, frozen in time. We trembled and shook. As the two crowns of naaseh — we will do — and nishmah — we will listen — were placed on our heads, we made our split-second decision to tell the story of the spontaneous overwhelming passion for Torah and God. Let us give thanks. Halleluyah.
Now rise and send one to open the door. Raise the glass of wine, for Torah is like wine. Just as the longer the wine stays in the jar, the better it becomes, so too the longer the Torah is within a person, the richer he or she becomes.
Welcome all those who came before you, your ancestors from here and from far back and from even further back all the way to Sinai itself. Turn to them and proclaim with great joy, “It’s a Tree of Life to those who hold fast to it and all of its supporters are happy.”
Rivy Poupko Kletenik is an internationally renowned educator and Head of School at the Seattle Hebrew Academy. If you have a question that’s been tickling your brain, send Rivy an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.