On Thursday evening (May 30th) this week we begin the second of the Shalosh Regalim for the holiday of Shavuot. For the past seven weeks we have been counting the Omer, each day focusing our attention on another aspect of our emotions, to improve, sharpen and focus them to be ready to celebrate this holiday. On this holiday we celebrate the most famous and powerful event in all Jewish history, the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
Every year we celebrate this event by burning the midnight oil studying Torah texts with a few fellow “crazies.” We stand straight and tall in shul as we hear the reading of the Ten Commandments. And of course we discard the cholent by the kiddush, in order to replace it with cheesecake and those delicious dairy delicacies.
However, this year will be a different experience for all. Your synagogue may not be offering a Shavuot service, or they may be offering a short, modified service governed by social distancing guidelines.
For so many of us, the holidays reinvigorate us. They remind us of the fun experiences we had as children or young adults. They give us that spiritual boost that we all need, to help us focus our priorities in service of G-d.
What are we to do this year without the synagogue? This year of all years, many of us feel physically, and spiritually fatigued due to the current pandemic. We have been quarantining away from family and friends, and sometimes we do not feel there is an end in sight.
The answer lies in a dialogue recorded in the prophets. Ezekiel cries out (11:13), “Lord God, you are wiping out the remnant of Israel.” God responds (11:16) by declaring that He has “removed them far among the nations and has scattered them among the countries, and I have become to them a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary.”
Each one us must make our mikdash me’at in our very own homes. We cannot rely on the synagogue, the rabbi or our fellow congregants to help us celebrate the holiday; we must do it ourselves.
To make it easier on you — not requiring you to become a rabbi overnight — listed below are some practical suggestions that will help with your DIY Shavuot:
Decorate the house
As we celebrate at home, it is especially important to make our environment feel as celebratory as possible. Studies have shown that flowers improve your emotional health. Many follow the custom of sprucing up their synagogues and homes with greenery and flowers, but there is more you can do. Let your crafty side reign free. Create Mount Sinai posters, Torah motifs and other art to give your home a festive, Shavuot vibe.
Cook up dairy delights
A favorite Shavuot custom is enjoying dairy treats, which run the gamut from traditional blintzes to Italian creations with names that are difficult to spell and almost impossible to pronounce. If shopping is difficult, even humble classics like mac and cheese (cooked over a pre-existing flame) or a comforting coffee can do the trick.
Print up study material for your all-nighter
It is customary to stay up the entire first night of Shavuot, reading a syllabus of classic Torah texts, known as Tikkun (“fixing”), until just before dawn. Those unable to read Tikkun often study with friends, join classes or learn on their own. Calculate how many hours you will have from when you conclude your holiday meal until dawn, and make sure you have enough study material to carry you through.
Light holiday candles
Shavuot is a holiday, and it is ushered in by lighting candles (married women light at least two, and single girls light one). If you are sheltering in place in a male-only household, one of the guys should light candles for everyone. Remember the second night is Shabbat, and the candles must be lit 18 minutes before sunset from a pre-existing flame.
Hold your own services
Except for Kaddish, the Barechu call to prayer, the repetition of the Amidah and the Torah reading, you can pray anywhere in the world, including your home. Make sure you have a Siddur handy and a place set aside to serve as your ad hoc shul. If you are with others, pray together. Even though you do not make a minyan, you can say the words and sing the songs together.
Read the Ten Commandments
When the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:1-20:23) were communicated on the very first Shavuot in history, all Jewish souls (including yours and mine) were present. Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn encouraged every living Jew, from newborns to nonagenarians and beyond, to be present during services on the first morning of Shavuot, when we relive the experience by reading the record of the event from the Torah scroll.
Do not forget Yizkor
The second day of Shavuot is one of four annual times the Yizkor memorial prayer for our dear departed ones is recited in the synagogue. This Shavuot, as on Passover, we will recite Yizkor privately at home, secure in the fact that this is what G‑d wants from us right now, taking comfort in knowing that our loved ones would surely want us to stay safe. JN
Rabbi Shimi Ash is the rabbi at Chabad Jewish Center of Gilbert.