Commentary for Shavuot

22 May

There are many well-known traditions associated with the holiday of Shavuot. We eat dairy during Shavuot because the Israelites had not received the Torah and thus did not yet know which animals were permissible to eat, so they ate dairy to avoid accidentally eating a non-kosher animal. We stay up all night learning on the first night of the holiday to make reparations to God for the sin of the golden calf. On the first day of Shavuot, the day when the Jewish People officially entered into their covenant with God, we read the book of Ruth to learn about one individual’s journey into that covenant.


One of the lesser-known customs of Shavuot is to decorate the synagogue with flowers. The source for this custom is a midrash which says that on the day of the giving of the Torah, the desert around Mount Sinai bloomed with flowers. While this basic explanation is very nice, there is also a deeper symbolism behind this custom.


The sprouting of flowers in the barren desert symbolizes the Torah’s ability to bring a new life to areas of our lives that were previously lacking. Before receiving the Torah, eating was just eating. It was a thing we did to survive and to satiate our desire for food. With the Torah, though, the choices we make when we eat cease to be mundane and become a way through which we can serve God.   Burying the dead ceases to be icky, grimy work done simply to preserve the living by preventing the spread of disease, and instead becomes a beautiful declaration to the world that all of God’s creations deserve to be treated with dignity, even after the point that they cannot pay you back in kind. The giving of food to the poor transforms from merely being a nice thing to do into being a way in which we set an example for people and show them how God wants everyone to behave.


The Torah was not given at Sinai to remain there, high up on that mountain. It was given to our ancestors to take with them everywhere they went on their journey. And though the journeys may have changed throughout the centuries, it applies no differently for us.

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