It’s not a Christmas picture. It is of Kehal Adas Jeshurun, “Breuer’s,” in Washington Heights preparing for Shavuot. The custom is observed, often quite extravagantly, by German synagogues, though there are others that at least add flowers or plants around the sanctuary for the holiday.
I first learned about this custom at Beth Meier, where I served in Los Angeles, which was founded by a student of Rav Breuer’s from back in Germany. While it had gotten toned down from how it had been, we still had flowers and plants in the sanctuary and the Hebrew School kids made bouquets out of tissue paper which they carried in a parade during Shavuot for graduation.
The practice is not some obscure thing. The Shulchan Aruch mentions it as a regular practice for Ashkenazi Jews, indicating that “it is the proper practice lishtoach asavim b’Shavuot b’Veit HaKnesset v’habatim,” “spread greens on Shavuot in synagogues and homes.”
Of course, being Jews, no custom could be acceptable to everyone. The Vilna Gaon in the 18th century, and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in the 20th both objected to the practice because it was too much like chukkot hagoyim, “the practices of the Gentiles” – i.e. like Christmas.
But what does this practice teach us? Three sources for it, biblical and rabbinic, enlighten us.
1). Exodus 19:12-13 implies Mount Sinai had been barren before Revelation and was about to blossom because of it, hence the need for the following regulations:
וְהִגְבַּלְתָּ֤ אֶת־הָעָם֙ סָבִ֣יב לֵאמֹ֔ר הִשָּׁמְר֥וּ לָכֶ֛ם עֲל֥וֹת בָּהָ֖ר וּנְגֹ֣עַ בְּקָצֵ֑הוּ כָּל־הַנֹּגֵ֥עַ בָּהָ֖ר מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת׃
לֹא־תִגַּ֨ע בּ֜וֹ יָ֗ד כִּֽי־סָק֤וֹל יִסָּקֵל֙ אוֹ־יָרֹ֣ה יִיָּרֶ֔ה אִם־בְּהֵמָ֥ה אִם־אִ֖ישׁ
“And you shall set boundaries for the people, saying, ‘Take heed that you do not go up onto the mountain or touch the border of it; whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death; no hand shall touch it without being stoned or shot; not beast nor man…”
2) Next, perhaps the most obvious source is from Rosh Hashanah 16a:
בארבעה פרקים העולם נידון בפסח על התבואה… בעצרת על פירות האילן… בר"ה כל באי עולם… ובחג נידונין על המים
“Four times a year the world is judged: On Passover concerning grain; on Shavuot concerning fruits that grow on a tree; on Rosh Hashanah all creatures… and on Sukkot concerning rainfall the coming year.”
3). Finally, Shabbat 88b, quoting Song of Songs (5:13), tells us: “’His cheeks are as a bed of spices, [as banks of sweet herbs, his lips are lilies dripping with flowing myrrh]’ means from each and every utterance that emerged from God’s cheeks, i.e., the mouth of the Holy Blessed One, the entire world was filled with fragrant spices.”
״לְחָיָו כַּעֲרוּגַת הַבֹּשֶׂם״ — כׇּל דִּיבּוּר וְדִיבּוּר שֶׁיָּצָא מִפִּי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא נִתְמַלֵּא כָּל הָעוֹלָם כּוּלּוֹ בְּשָׂמִים
We have –boundaries and blossoming in the first, judgment in the second, and fragrance filling the world in the last one.
That is life, my friends. And that is also a lesson about how we relate to our loved ones who have passed on, as we do today for Yizkor.
How so? We start our lives in need of education, of rules, of boundaries. The Torah gives this to us, parents, schooling, society. The Jewish People’s experience is like this, they flee Egypt and get to Mount Sinai – pretty quickly in the Torah’s telling of the story. These are the Jews’ blossoming with potential, being given boundaries for proper living.
But what do they do next? They do what we all do. They impose their own judgments, their own egos, their own narrow perspective on the world, on the rules they’ve been given, on how or whether they can blossom – bring their skills into the world.
Judaism is a religion of rights and wrongs, of duties and transgressions. But that said, it is not a religion of judgment. At least not for us human beings. Sure, we can say what a Jew may or may not do. We can try to prevent wrongdoing and encourage repentance and forgiveness, but that doesn’t give us the right, the ability to know why he or she does or doesn’t follow the rules – to judge in the deepest sense of its meaning.
Think about the passage concerning the Four New Years. ---Everything--- gets judged. How could I possibly know how to judge a tree or rainfall? I mean, yeah, I could say, “that’s a big tree,” but I can’t imagine that’s what’s being referred to here.
Only God can do that kind of judging. And the same is true for people – it’s up to God. How could I really know?
Judging then, is in so many ways, a juvenile behavior. We judge ourselves either too harshly or not at all, leading ourselves into all sorts of problems. And we impose ourselves through our judging on everything around us to great detriment.
One needs to learn to break free of such behavior. That doesn’t mean to give up on what is right or wrong. It doesn’t mean to stop trying to repair the world. Or bring the beauty of Judaism into our lives. But it does mean letting go of resentment, envy, arrogance, selfishness, and cruelty, all of which we open the door to through judging others.
And what happens when we do that? We clear a path for God’s true presence, God’s holy, fragrant, spirit to enter the world through us. Through our kindness, our love, our thoughtfulness. To live as God really intended. Returning to the Torah’s narrative – to finally reach the Promised Land.
What about Yizkor? Our departed loved ones? We can start life, especially with our parents, seeing them as heroes, as the best ever. Lots of relationships begin like that – full of potential, but perhaps inaccurately assessed. Then, when we are disappointed or hurt – through their judging of us or our judging of them, pain and distance ensue. Yet even for the most bitter injuries, there is the possibility – though it is not at all for me to tell you that you can arrive there – no, only you can through your own efforts – you can come to that fragrant place. A place where you needn’t been imprisoned by those relationships. A place of freedom. Of God.
And of course, that is in the most extreme cases. For many, I hope, the understanding that life brings to us opens new perspective on our parents and other departed loved ones – too see their limitations as well as our own. To understand a bit more about why they acted as they did. And to realize that often they were just trying their best. When they, their spirits, have arrived to that fragrance-filled land, we have the opportunity to create new connections, new relationships with them – full of new promise, fresh blossoms, for us.
Before the holiday starts then, get some greenery, a plant or even some tissue paper flowers. Let them remind you about God’s presence and how it remedies our desire to impose our judgments on the world and betray the potential and necessary boundaries we really do need in life. And as they grow, let them remind you that we continue to grow, the Jewish People continue to grow. That we are designed to do so if we are adhering to God’s plan. That just like the Torah to which we return year after year and yet it is always new, we too, even if we spend all our lives wandering in the wilderness as did those who came out from Egypt, that doesn’t mean we can’t receive Revelation. In fact, we can. We can, through our good efforts, even make the desert blossom forth.