Shavuot: Weeks of Wisdom

By Sophia Jane Wilkof

Happy Shavuot

I don’t remember meeting my grandfather, Papa Darwin. He passed away when I was just a year old. Yet I feel like I knew him because his wisdom and humor permeate my family’s ethos. My boyfriend calls it the “Wilkof mythology,” because of all the isms and sayings which came from Papa that have become part of our shared family language, we call them “Darwinisms.”

“Don’t procrastinate,” “We don’t think about the weather,” “I never pass gas in front of your mother,” “You can fool anyone but you can’t fool yourself,” “If in doubt, ride to the thunder of the guns,” and so many more.

I’m thinking a lot about Papa Darwin and the wisdom he dispensed because his yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death, falls on the 8th of Sivan, the day after Shavuot. How fitting that on Shavuot, we celebrate and honor the unbroken chain of knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation in the form of our Torah.

Papa Darwin studying torah

Papa Darwin studying the Torah.

We have counted down 7 weeks of anticipation between Passover and Shavuot, meant to fire up our enthusiasm for receiving the wisdom of the Torah. Then comes Shavuot (which means “weeks”) and we use that enthusiasm to fuel us for a full night of Torah study. It has become the custom to participate in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot and stay up all night learning on the eve of Shavuot. During this holiday, it is as if we are in constant dialogue with our ancestors, with the ancient Rabbis, and with all our fellow Jews that came before us. We ask the hard questions; we pursue newfound knowledge, and we tap into the shared memory of the Jewish people. And then what?

Underlying the experience of Shavuot are choices and challenges: is this study to be a one-time event or is it preparation for what we will do next? After we depart the holiday, will we continue what we started? Will we carry in our heart what we may have learned? Will we sustain some part of the enthusiasm and determination we managed to feel during the holiday? Enthusiasm, joy, dedication to Torah – these are things we need to hold on to and cultivate throughout the coming months ahead.

Papa Darwin praying at the Wailing Wall

Papa Darwin praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem

But how? Are we supposed to study Torah every day? Not everyone is lucky enough as I am to be a Hebrew Helpers mentor and get compensated to study the Torah with our students! I believe that the study of Torah is one way to interact with our most holy book, but it isn’t the only way. We can continue to engage with Torah by being a walking embodiment of its values, by living its principles each day. This can mean integrating some actual Mitzvot (laws) into daily life such as resting on Shabbat, giving charity, or honoring your parents. It can also mean living according to the principles of the Torah, such as treating others as you would want to be treated, welcoming the stranger, seeking justice and pursuing it. This is how we can engage with the Torah throughout the year, not just on the anniversary of when it was given. By walking the walk, leading by example, we pass the lessons of the Torah on to those around and to the next generation.

Shavuot is called Z’man Matan Torateinu which means “the time of the giving of the Torah.” Why wouldn’t it be called “the time of the receiving of the Torah?” The Sages point out that the giving took place on one day to one people, but the receiving takes place at all times and in all generations, when we actively make the choice to take its lessons and laws upon ourselves, when we live it every day.

My grandfather’s yahrzeit is certainly a wonderful time to remember him and reflect on the impact he had on my family. But as we light the yahrzeit candle for Papa Darwin in just a few days, I hope we light a fire within ourselves to weave his memory into our lives throughout the year ahead.

May Shavuot light the fire within all of us to live a year filled with Torah!

Sophia Jane Wilkof is an Ohio-born, California-raised, and Brooklyn-based Hebrew Helpers mentor! When she’s not learning with her wonderful students, she can be found acting and performing standup comedy around NYC. This article is in memory of her Papa Darwin and is also dedicated to her dad for passing on the wisdom of Papa AND of the Torah, every day.

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