June 5, 2008
Shavuot 5768: Creative twists fill large field of holiday events
Web extras: Audio shiur from Mrs. Shira Smiles and video drash from Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halchmi
Those are some of the more creative ways Los Angeles communities will be taking part this year in Tikkun Leil Shavuot -- the tradition of staying up all night studying Torah on the first night of Shavuot, which this year takes place on Sunday, June 8.
Like many rituals and customs once celebrated only by the very observant, the practice of attending a tikkun has become increasingly popular among Jews of all denominations. And many have added their own creative twists.
"My sense is that people gathering in synagogue for all or part of the night is expanding," said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. "A lot of great learning takes place in the Los Angeles Jewish community on Shavuot."
Some synagogues use the traditional chevruta method of partner learning, but many schedule speakers to give presentations throughout the night, especially to help congregants stay awake. Other communities will hold a shorter night of learning for family-friendly congregants.
B'nai David-Judea's begins its study lineup at 11 p.m. with "The Case of Jacob the Wrestler: A Study in Biblical Ambiguity" and continues with sessions on "Sefirat Ha'Omer, Yom Ha'Atzmaut and Shavuot: A Continuum" and "The Lost World of the Mishnah."
Internationally known teacher and lecturer Mrs. Shira Smiles offers this Shauvot lesson on 'Redemption' (Flash audio)
Nashuva has planned its fourth birthday celebration to combine a concert followed by Torah study.
"I think Shavuot is the time for making a renewed commitment and to receive inspiration," said Rabbi Naomi Levy, the community's spiritual leader. "Nashuva is a place that allows people to make connections to Judaism and to inspire people who haven't had that connection before."
Some communities will go beyond traditional topics to link the holiday to modern-day concerns. Temple Beth Am, IKAR, PicoEgal Minyan and the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University will gather at Temple Beth Am for a communitywide Tikkun on the topic of "Can We Talk?"
"The basic theme is can we maintain civil public discourse?" said Rabbi Joel Rembaum, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am. "You have factions in the Jewish community that say unkind things about each other or unkind words about people who disagree on Israel."
Rembaum said the idea behind the community gathering is to share Jewish traditions on the subject of how to talk in a public setting.
"Jewish tradition is very clear," he said. "You cannot cause a person shame in public."
Rembaum called the all-night study a preparation for Mount Sinai: "You are creating for yourself a virtual Sinai by engaging deeply in the study of Torah -- you are creating a very powerful spiritual moment," he said, the middle of the night being a more "pure" time.
"This is one of the legacies in kabbalah that has been generalized now into circles that are non-kabbalistic," he said.
Indeed, the idea of a tikkun is a kabbalistic one. Some say the custom emerged in the 16th century, when two kabbalists stayed up all night studying the secrets of creation with a celestial being.
The idea of a tikkun is literally a repair or atonement for a past mistake, said Rabbi Moshe Bryski, executive director of Chabad of the Conejo in Agoura Hills. Quoting a midrash, or commentary, that says the people of Israel were sleeping when the Torah came, "We tikkun to fix the mistake" by staying up all night to study Torah, Bryski said: "The whole message of Sinai is to wake up and live like a Jew in this world."
"The Lubavitcher Rebbe made a major campaign that everyone should relive the Ten Commandments," Bryski said. "It's not just reading something from history; it's for every single person today."
To make the experience relevant today, some synagogues are going beyond the traditional Torah study and lectures.
The Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center will hold a Torah and yoga session that ends with a midnight meditation, said Rabbi Joshua Grater. "We always try to do something interesting to entice people to come."
This year resident musicians, Nimrod Nol and Duvid Swirsky (of the band Moshav) will also sing and tell stories of Shlomo Carlebach, as Swirsky grew up playing with Carlebach on his moshav.
"Things happen differently in the middle of the night, when you yourself pass a plane of rational understanding," he said. "That helps us grasp the enormity of revelation when we read it in the morning."
Some want to make the experience even more personal.
"I was thinking about what is Torah and what is our individual connection to Torah and to relate our relationship to Torah and to God," said Jeff Bernhardt, a member of Beth Chayim Chadashim. Those thoughts led him to write "Standing at Sinai," a play that will be performed at Beth Chayim Chadashim and other synagogues around the country on Shavuot.
The play is a collection of 10 monologues by fictional characters who find a meaningful or life-changing piece of Torah in modern-day life, such as a bar mitzvah boy whose Torah portion is about leprosy or a person who cannot speak after surgery. At the end of the play, each character remains on stage and recites the blessing, "This is the Torah God gave to me," to symbolize the receiving of the Torah.
"It's the idea that we were all there at Sinai," Bernhardt said.
But were the people of Israel meant to prepare for revelation at a wine bar? Rabbi Lori Schneide is holding Temple Shalom of the South Bay's first tikkun at Brix Wine Cellar on June 9, the second night of the holiday (so people away for the weekend can attend). She will re-examine Exodus and Ezekial's prophesy using artworks, such as Ansel Adams on revelation and clips from the film "Field of Dreams."
"My congregation is a new congregation, and a lot of people are intermarried, so a part of what I'm working with them is relevant Judaism for the 21st century," Schneide said.
She is holding the tikkun at a wine bar, as might have been done in Roman and Greek times, when important discussions took place with wine.
"I'm presenting Torah to them at a place where they go to feel things with more levity and meaning in their lives through wine and good foods," she said. "Where do we manifest revelation today" is part of the discussion. "After drinking, they'll start talking."
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halchmi of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem talks about three ways of receiving Torah and revelation at Sinai