Tortoises, Cycles, and Shavuot

Editor’s Note: Chag Shavuot Sameach USY! We at Achshav are as excited to receive the Torah as are all of you! But before that, HaNer (Whoop Whoop) Religion/Education Vice President Adeena Bromberg-Seltzer has some wise words to share about… Tortoises and Blintzes?

The tortoise may be obsessed with blintzes. I would invite her in for some, and maybe some cheesecake, but it’s kind of a mystery where she comes from.

All I know is that every year, on Shavuot, she comes to the playground outside my synagogue, and lays eggs. It’s not always the same place in the playground, but every year, somehow, it happens. The tortoise comes to lay eggs, and we all watch in awe.

This may seem like a silly story, but it’s actually true. I don’t know when it started, and I don’t know why our playground, but I do know that my whole community loves watching the next generation of tortoises come into this world, and the cycle that it both starts and completes.

Like most things in Judaism, Shavuot is a part of many established cycles.

The festival of Shavuot marks the end of the Omer: the seven-week period, starting from Passover, during which we count each day. For 49 days, we think about where we are in time, and our physical and mental transition from Spring to Summer, Passover to Shavuot. We abstain from certain joyful activities and take care to notice agricultural achievements and cycles (while most of us aren’t wheat farmers, there is still a lot to be thankful for in terms of food).

In counting the Omer, we are also counting up to one of the most exciting, awe-inspiring, events in our shared history: matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. This moment is awesome in the true sense of the word. Each Israelite prepared for days, yet none were ready for what was to come: the voice of God, revealed to the people, giving tradition, history, and our strongest values in the middle of the desert. Some speculate that only the first word, or maybe the first letter, or maybe the beginning hints of the first sound, was too much for the people to handle. It is thought, traditionally, that every Jewish person through history was there, at Har Sinai (Mount Sinai), for this monumental occasion, binding each of us together. We experienced something holy, incredible, and godly together, even though we all may live in different places and different times.

Though the form of Jewish worship has developed and changed throughout time, this book has stayed the same. Billions of people have read the universal best-seller. Billions of personal and communal interpretations have been made. We all know some amount of the basics. We could look up any verse and the Google results would be countless. It is accessible and already distributed throughout the world. Why do we need to prepare to receive it, when we already have it? Why continue to re-read it again each year? Why does the Torah need to be given again? The earth created again? The Israelites freed from slavery again?

Isn’t once enough? Why cycle back?

Going through the process of receiving the Torah each year is a reminder of its importance. It is a way to remind ourselves of the gift we have and the structures in our life. We finish our spring season and finally get to go into summer with a rejuvenated soul, a festival, and an understanding that we have a purpose besides our monochrome day-to-day. We are connected to a past, and we are connected to each other. Like any other established cycle, the cycle of receiving the Torah gives a structure for life.

Most importantly, revisiting the miracle of receiving the Torah is a reminder of the fact that it can be considered miraculous. Not only from the traditional perspective — of a guide to life directly from HaShem — but also as a guide to life that continues to be relevant thousands of years after its conception. We live, think, and understand in the present based on a book that has remained in circulation from the time of our ancestors. Evidence such as the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that this narrative/guide has remained incredibly constant even through time and space. While interpretation and explicit understanding can vary, this text is a link through generations: a miracle. If we do not actively remind ourselves of this fact, the phenomenon may be lost. We live, day to day, year to year, in an active miracle.

This active, cycling miracle is parallel to the miracle of birth. A turtle once was born, and turtles existed, which is awe-some. But each year, new turtles are born. Each year, services in my Shul halt for a few minutes, as the community runs outside to witness the miracle of birth; we watch the tortoise lay her eggs and see a tangible reminder that turtles have miraculously survived, that we as humans have survived, and on a larger scale, life exists and survives, in a cyclical structure.

It is very difficult to imagine oneself at the base of Sinai, over two thousand years ago, experiencing matan Torah, the gift of the Torah, alongside every other Jew ever in existence. But simply remembering that we got the Torah, that we share it, cherish it, and live by it, is in and of itself a way to testify to its importance. Preparing to receive the Torah each year over the seven weeks of the Omer, purifying ourselves by abstaining from certain activities, similarly to what our ancestors did in the desert, is a tangible way to acknowledge the miracle, and its continuance effect on our lives, not once, but for each generation. Going through this process is a tangible way to appreciate that this guide, this scroll, continues to provide structure and cycle to our lives. If we lost this appreciation, we may lose this connection. Each year we read the Torah, and each year it means something different, and it provides different support for so many people. The cycle is necessary to provide the opportunity for a prolonged effect. If we didn’t read it each year, receive it each year, would we still find it relevant enough to live by it?

This year, it is not likely that I will be there to watch the tortoise lay her eggs. I can not go to services at my synagogue on Shavuot. Some people will celebrate together online, from the safety of their own homes, while others will gather as a family to celebrate Shavuot. What I urge each of us to do this Shavuot, to help celebrate and make it meaningful in our unprecedented situation, is to find a part of life that is simply miraculous — that we may not think about often — and appreciate it as a cycle in our lives. Whether this is the way plants grow, the changing seasons, having received the Torah, or a tortoise laying her eggs, so many of our cycles in life are worth appreciating. Recognize these taken-for-granted miracles, and cherish them — they are the unbroken cycles, the connections that provide structure and sustain us.

Adeena Bromberg-Seltzer is a junior and proud member of Northampton USY in HaNer. She is currently serving as HaNer Religion/Education Vice President and as President of Northampton USY.