Temple Emmanuel of Wakefield’s custom is to decorate Torah crowns with flowers on Shavuot. From left: Warren Silbovitz, Ariel Shepetovskiy and Rabbi Greg Hersh.

‘This year, the Torah that we go to is the Torah of comfort’

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‘This year, the Torah that we go to is the Torah of comfort’

Temple Emmanuel of Wakefield’s custom is to decorate Torah crowns with flowers on Shavuot. From left: Warren Silbovitz, Ariel Shepetovskiy and Rabbi Greg Hersh.

Shavuot, the Jewish holiday in which we celebrate receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, is coming. The cheesecake-and-blintz-filled holiday marks the end of the counting of the Omer – the 49-day period of personal growth in-between Passover and Shavuot. The holiday comes on the evening of 5 Sivan and lasts until nightfall on 7 Sivan. In the Gregorian calendar this year, the holiday will fall on Wednesday, June 11 and run through the evening of Thursday, June 13.

Traditionally, Jews stay up all night on the eve of Shavuot, studying Torah in celebration of our reinvigorated acceptance of the holy text. This year, rabbis across the country and world are preparing classes for their communities, contemplating what Torah to study and thinking about what Shavuot means this year, in what is undoubtedly a unique and challenging moment of Jewish time.

For Rabbi Yossi Lipsker, founder and director of Chabad of the North Shore, “Passover was the moment that freed us to become who we are, but Shavuot is when we became that, by becoming the people of Torah.”

Per Chabad of the North Shore tradition, Lipsker will be joining forces with Temple Emanu-El emeritus Rabbi David Meyer to facilitate adult learning on the night of Shavuot at Chabad. The pair will be working with Jewish mysticism and chasidut this year, learning from the Tanya, the classic work on the Chasidic movement, and the Zohar, the foundational text of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism.

Lipsker encourages us this year, more than years past, to focus on the fact that Shavuot is the holiday that the Israelites truly became Jews – and to reflect on what that means.

“I think that the antisemitism around the world always backfires,” he says. “In many ways, the more antisemitic the experience, the more the Jewish people gravitate towards what makes them Jewish. This year is no exception.”

For those seeking an arts-based night of learning, Temple Emanu-El in Haverhill is co-hosting a hybrid – Zoom and in-person – Shavuot experience with Congregation Beth Israel in Andover and Temple Emanuel in Andover. The in-person piece will take place at the Haverhill temple with a dinner. Rabbi Ashira Stevens of Emanu-El will lead a “Zentangle” art session, incorporating visual expression with Torah learning, in addition to other learning options from the other rabbis.

With the pain of the war in Israel and the still-captive hostages, Shavuot will be different this year for Temple Emanuel’s interim Rabbi Jessica Spitalnic Mates.

“This year, the Torah that we go to is the Torah of comfort,” she says. She’s focusing on the moments of comfort in the Torah, and what we, as Jews today, can glean from them: Hagar finding comfort from G-d after she is exiled by Sarah; Jacob finding comfort when he is reunited with Joseph; Isaac finding comfort in Rebecca after his mother dies.

“There’s plenty of moments of comfort in Torah,” Spitalnic Mates says. “Sometimes, Torah is about finding comfort in your lowest points and your sadness, too.”

Over in Newburyport, Congregation Ahavas Achim will be leaning into the voices of its community to learn on Shavuot, with congregants stepping up to teach or present something Jewish on Shavuot night, be it a song, a text or an idea. “I think one of the beautiful parts about this holiday commemorating receiving the Torah is celebrating the many different ways we make Torah our own,” says Rabbi Alex Matthews. “It’s a great opportunity to encourage different voices to teach and share, and hopefully that will have a snowball effect and empower more people to learn and eventually teach something new.”

For his own contemplations, Matthews says that the counting of the Omer since Passover has been inextricable for him from the counting up of the days that the hostages remain in Gaza.

“I feel like I and so many of us are counting and keeping track of time. [I see] how much harder that can be when there is no concrete end to that in sight, when you’re just counting to mark time, but you have no idea how long you’ll be counting for,” he says.

He noted that traditionally, we understand the receiving of the Torah as something that all Jews, past, present and future, were present at. Given that reading, Matthews wants us all to “reflect on the traditions and rituals that bind us and to find opportunities where we can be proud to stand together as the Jewish people in the way that at least I envisioned us doing at Sinai when we received the Torah.”

Rabbi Michael Schwartz of Temple Sinai in Marblehead is also thinking a lot about counting this year – he and more than 150 others have been keeping track of the Omer with his annual Omer listserv, now in its fifth year.

Schwartz explained how the period of time between Passover and Shavuot is marked by the transition of grains that are ready for harvest – at Passover, we harvest (and thus, offer to G-d) barley, something unrefined, used for animal feed. By Shavuot, we harvest and offer wheat, something that we humans turn into flour, and bread, through complex refining processes.

“When I think about the news, the war – it is barbaric,” Schwartz says. “How do we transform our feelings and our reactions to this? How do we refine them? It’s such a difficult time to somehow bring ourselves to a higher level of envisioning a better world, envisioning peace, having compassion for everyone, refining ourselves so that we can make a better world, because this is certainly not the kind of world that we want to be living in.”

Temple Sinai will be hosting five different teachers over the course of Shavuot evening, each who will offer short classes on the theme of “home,” interspersed between a “moveable feast” Shavuot meal (dairy, of course).

Finally, over at Temple Emmanuel of Wakefield, the community will be celebrating as per its custom, by decorating its sefer Torahs with crowns of flowers, in addition to holding services.

The temple’s Rabbi Greg Hersh is hoping to focus on the process of the course of the Omer that culminates in Shavuot – the first 33 days, mourning over Rabbi Akiva’s 26,000 students who perished in a plague, and the great loss of Torah wisdom they possessed; then the yarzheit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Lag B’Omer. “It is said,” Hersh explains, “that on the night of his death in the second century, he spent the entire night teaching all of his Torah to his students, before breathing his final breath.”

Finally, on Shavuot, “we bask in the light of Torah,” says Hersh. “After seven weeks of learning and growth, whether or not we can hear G-d’s voice calling from Mount Sinai, we nonetheless enjoy some cheese blintzes and ice cream!”
Chag Shavuot Sameach! 

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