Life, Death and Cheesecake: The Truth About Shavuos


You would think people would get excited about mass prophecy, but alas, there's no denying: Passover, the holiday of the Exodus, is way more popular than Shavuos, when we received the Torah.

Passover, with its plagues and miracles, grabs our attention. Passover is life-and-death, a dramatic escape from doom. But Shavuos? It's what happens seven weeks later, when things settle down. G-d takes us into the desert to tell us how to live.

The popularity of Passover compared to the obscurity of Shavuos reflects a larger issue with which we struggle. Why is it that we are more attracted to drama than to enlightenment? And how do we get over this?

The solution is cheesecake. Not just cheesecake. Blintzes and ice cream, too. Because there's an ancient custom to eat dairy on Shavuos, and it's the dairy of Shavuos that is the solution to our emotional and psychological dilemma.

But this requires a bit of explanation.

In 1967, at the outbreak of the Six Day War, many young Jewish people from around the world rushed to Israel to help. When the war was over, they started returning to their homes. Then Foreign Minister and future Prime Minister, Golda Meir, was taken aback, "In time of war you were willing to die with us," she marveled, "But in time of peace you don't want to live with us?"

Sadly, it's human nature to be more roused by crisis than by conviction. In everyday terms, it's why we can't get serious about studying for that exam or working on that project at the office until there's just barely enough time to get it done. Because the average human being is to some degree "an adrenaline junky." We thrive on our animal fight-or-flight response.

So how do we learn to be as impressed by spirituality and connectedness as we are by tension and conflict? In other words, how do we get as excited about Shavuos as we do about Passover?

One way of understanding the Passover-Shavuos dynamic is that it's the difference between blood and milk. Blood is life and milk is life, but in two very different ways. A warrior gives his life when he bleeds for his people on the battlefield. A mother gives life when she nurses her child.

The warrior's sacrifice is a spectacle, a bold event that may quite literally come but once-in-a-lifetime. The mother's dedication to her child, on the other hand, while just as heartfelt, is a private, somewhat unremarkable moment that will quietly happen many times a day. When the hero has given his last drop of blood, there is nothing left to give. But when the mother has given the last of her milk, she will make more. She will give again and again, over and over. Which is easier? I'm not sure. But which is more exciting? Which is more attractive to the ego? We all know the answer. Funny, isn't it?

You were willing to die with us, but you're not willing to live with us?

A fundraiser for a charitable cause once told me the following un-kosher fable he claims to have used successfully in motivating donors:

Pig and Chicken are walking down the road. Chicken says, "Let's open a restaurant!" Pig replies, "What will we call it?" Chicken says, "How about 'ham-n-eggs'?" Pig thinks for a moment and says, "No thanks. I'd be committed, you'd only be involved!"

When I heard this tale from my friend, I was shocked because I had known this story since I was a child, except that it had a completely different ending. My grandfather, may he rest in peace, was a lawyer and a businessman. He was not rich, but his charitable giving throughout his lifetime exceeded the philanthropy of many a millionaire. Here's how my grandfather told the story:

Pig and Chicken were talking about what they do on the farm. Pig said, "Look how fat I am. When the farmer and his family decide to eat me, they will have all this meat." Chicken said, "That's very noble of you, Pig, and it's true that I don't have very much meat on me. But you're no good until you're dead. What I do is give an egg every day. And one day when I have no more eggs, I'll give the rest of myself, too."

My grandfather's version, like so many of his stories, does not end with much of a zinger. The fundraiser's version has a better punch line. But I'll take my grandfather's version any day because what he was telling me was a lot like what Golda Meir wanted those young volunteers to understand: You can die once for what you believe in, but you can live for what you believe in everyday.

On Passover we remember the blood that the Jewish people placed on their doors so that the Almighty would skip over their houses during the death of the firstborn. This was the blood of the Pascal lamb as well as the blood of the circumcision. Blood is the symbol of intense sacrifice and on the anniversary of our redemption, it is a fitting reminder of the mighty way in which G-d took us out of our bondage and the bold manner in which we followed Him.

But on Shavuos we remember the fact that 49 days after we left Egypt, G-d found a quiet place where to speak to every man, woman and child of the Jewish people and to share with them His innermost wisdom and will -- a "Torah of Life" that gives us guidance for every moment of our lives.

So, we ask, is it blood or milk that moves us? The warrior or the mother? The intensity of the all-or-nothing moment or the simplicity of that which is solid and permanent?

Of course it's more natural for us to get excited over a Passover than over a Shavuos. And that is precisely why we must remind ourselves that if we can commemorate the blood, we must equally commemorate the milk.

If we teach our children about the martyrs of the Holocaust, do we teach them about simple, day-to-day Jewish observance? If our feelings of Jewish identity are roused when Israel is threatened, do we feel equally Jewish when we eat kosher or light Shabbat candles?

This is the lesson of the Shavuos cheesecake. Jews have always been ready to die as Jews. History, unfortunately, has had ample occasion to prove that. It is up to us now to show history that we are ready to live as Jews as well.