1. Shavuot night is like a wedding without worrying about the color scheme – a night of pure encounter. Torat Hashem Temimah Meshivat Nefesh – Torah heals the soul. Pikudei Hashem Yesharim Misamchei Leiv. It brings great inner joy. So why do we stay up all night? It’s like that first taste of love. Picture that crazy-about-each-other couple, where nobody wants to put the phone down: Say Goodbye. No, you say goodbye. OK. Still there? Even when talking becomes like an outer body experience, its still geshmak. Sit down with a Coke and a Gemara and enjoy.
2. A fascinating question: If sefiras haomer [the omer-count] is only Rabbinic today (1) [since we cannot bring the omer (barley) offering], then why is Shavuot still considered Biblical? Isn’t Shavuot the fiftieth day of the Omer?
It’s a bit complicated question. For Rambam, the question does not start: he believes that the omer-count remains a Torah imperative. Shavuot, then is the culmination of the Omer process. Most commentaries disagree [they believe that the omer-count is Rabbinic]; according to them, we may rightfully ask why Shavuot remains a Torah holiday.
Ramban [cf. Vayikra, 23:14] to the rescue, he teaches that the verse b’etzem hayom hazeh-the essence of this day [mentioned in the context of Shavuot] teaches the imperative to celebrate the essential Shavuot, independent from any sacrifices and from the Omer.
It thus emerges that the relationship between counting the omer and the holiday of Shavuot is a dispute between Rambam (a tight connection) and Ramban (less so). On the front end, the dispute is inverted. According to Rambam, the omer offering is not connected with the omer-count, whereas for Ramban the absence of the omer offering renders the whole omer-count Rabbinic- meaning they are deeply connected. Got that?
It is axiomatic that the Omer period is a preparation for the Torah. As such, perhaps Ramban believes that the Omer offering and the subsequent count are linked because they mark the process of transformation (from slavery) and preparation (for Torah). That process, one of self development, of major midot work is independently significant from the receiving of the Torah. Rav Chaim Vital explains that Derech Eretz is a prerequisite for Torah thus the Torah gives it nary a mention. To paraphrase Mishlei: A Torah superimposed upon bad character is like the gold ring in the nose of a swine its dirty and disgusting. Once good character is achieved, receiving the Torah is a separate significant milestone.
To Rambam the preparation for receiving the Torah must culminate in receiving it. The Omer, a barley offering, which is considered animal food (at least back then) reminds us of our unrefined state. Duly reminded, we prepare to receive the Torah by developing our character. Ultimate midot and ethics, however are defined by the Torah itself (2). Character work and ethics demand a Torah perspective: When is stealing permitted and when does life end and how do I balance peace with truth are among the myriad moral dilemmas we face in life. We need that Torah to clarify our morality and midot.
3. Many eat dairy on Shavuot. Some claim the custom goes back as far as the 2nd Temple period. Why? 12 reasons and counting. One fascinating notion is based on Midrash Tehillim. The angels want the Torah also. They are rebuffed by Moshe, with God’s assistance. The Talmud has one account, the midrash another. The angels rejoice when the tablets are broken and stake their claim. God, look they have violated the 2nd of the 10 commandments. God reminds them that when they greeted Avraham (after the brit milah), they ate meat and milk, something that every Jewish child knows not to violate. The angels cede their claim. We emerge victorious with our Torah. We eat dairy to remind ourselves of our victory.
The message: I am sure there are many. A simple inference: It is worse for an angel to eat meat and milk than for a human being to build a Golden Calf. Different levels exist in God’s creation. Commensurate to the level of perfection are the demands; this is surely true among human beings as well. Let us be more self-critical and other- transcendent. That would be truly angelic or perhaps an ultimate definition of humanity.
Wishing all a meaningful Shavuot Asher Brander
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles