Recently I went out of town without my children for an engagement party. When I returned two days later, I shared what I had brought home for them: stories. They liked hearing about how the hostess at Shabbat dinner, known for talking in her sleep, had once murmured that it was “spaghetti o’clock.”
I told them how when I’d asked, my host said, “We’re cereal-atarians here.” They laughed at my recounting of how, at the engagement party, the other surprise guests and I were comically delayed from making our appearance to sing the couple’s favorite song. Both kids shared in my enjoyment of retelling the events of the weekend and followed up with their own version.
In other words, I didn’t bring home any physical gifts, and yet my children were happy.
Similarly, Shavuot is a holiday that seems to arrive unadorned. There’s no seder, no costumes, no candy or cookies or even honey–just the reading of the Book of Ruth and maybe some extra flowers on the bimah (dais). Even the meals are dairy (traditionally considered less fancy than meat). Communities that stay up late learning Torah are following only a 500-year-old custom, a toddler in the lifespan of Jewish practices. Originally a festival in honor of the new harvest, in rabbinic understanding Shavuot became the time of our receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, but was assigned no extra rituals.
To be honest, Shavuot has always been my least-favorite holiday.
And yet this very simplicity makes Shavuot relevant to me as a parent. Agriculture and Torah, or nature and learning: that describes a lot of what takes place in my house. Just as the first fruits were commemorated with a ceremony in the Temple, in my house the natural actions that make us human are increasingly marked with blessings: sleeping and waking up, eating, using the bathroom (really!), going from here to there and back. The learning has many forms: school, of course, and the asking of questions, which my spouse and I explicitly encourage. In addition, my children learn from the stories we tell and the limits we set on their behavior. The Torah itself comprises not only rules but also stories, which tell us of the values and challenges of living a good life dedicated to God.
When I think carefully about the tales from my trip, they appear multifaceted, shining with many of the values of my family and community. They tell about humor, word play, and music. Shabbat is there, as are hachnasat orchim (inviting guests into one’s home), community, family and chesed (kindness). And there is compassion for the normal sensations of hunger, fatigue, and impatience.
Those are the types of gifts I give my children: internal strength, the ability to laugh at mistakes, the need to support and connect with family, and the active restfulness of Shabbat. These are gifts that I hope will support my children throughout their lives.
Even when I make purchases, our family’s values are apparent. Other than groceries, I don’t buy very much and then usually from thrift shops. We reuse, curb-shop, visit garage sales, seek out hand-me-downs, go without what we don’t have, and don’t buy food expensively packaged in small amounts. Are my children always happy about this style? Of course not. They often tell me that other kids’ houses have better toys, that our house is boring, how much they wish they had this or the other item.
When God took the Israelites out of Egypt, we did a lot of complaining ourselves. We moaned about how much we missed the delicious food and argued about the lack of water. Later in our travels, we would insist on having a tangible statue when left without Moses for too long, but then challenge his leadership to his face. In the midst of all this childlike discontent, God gives us the Torah: not the physical scroll but the contents. God gifts us with a story that is both simple and complex, full of rules and apparent contradictions and lists and puns and examples and people.
We are still retelling that story. We are still learning from it.
We asked God for treats and God gave us instructions on how to be good people and how to live in community. My children want superhero toys and model trains; I give them Shabbat and stories. Shavuot reminds me that I’m following in God’s example. When my children act out the plot of their favorite songs, when they turn cardboard boxes into hideouts, when they tell me that homemade applesauce is the best (okay, only one of them says that, the other asks “may I have store-bought?”), I know that they are using the gifts that I try to give them every day. On Shavuot, rather than wishing for more to do, I will rally my own internal resources and create a day of joy and laughter with my family and friends.