Food for thought

More Cheesecake Please

Behind the milchiks

By: Dr. Yardena Bauer

“Unconditional love cannot be reduced to a pill.”

There is no actual mitzvah to eat cheesecake on Shavuot. This came as a shock to me as well. Out of the Shalosh Regalim that is Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot – Shavuot is one day and with no Torah-prescribed rituals. Both Pesach and Sukkot are 7 days. Pesach has the seder with all the foods and of course the complete changeover of eating without chametz. Sukkot has the Sukkah and moving outside of our homes. What does Shavuot get?

What is Shavuot about?
1. It commemorates the wheat harvest in Eretz Yisrael (chag HaKatzir)
2. It remembers the bringing of the first fruits to the Beit Hamikdash (Yom HaBikkurim)
3. It is 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt when Hashem gave the Jewish People the Torah at Har Sinai. The culmination of 7 weeks (Shavuot) since Pesach. Hence the name Shavuot.

Receiving the Torah is a pretty big deal. Where are the fireworks to remember this auspicious day? The Torah gives no instruction of rituals for us to perform. How would we imagine we would celebrate receiving the Torah? Perhaps this is why the Tikkun Leil was established as a custom to stay up all night and learn Torah. To celebrate the precious gift that we were given. Like staying up on the anniversary of your wedding looking at photos to engross yourself in the memories of that special moment. Pesach is the start of the relationship with Hashem and the Jewish people. We read Shir HaShirim on Pesach which is a story of passion, of new love and excitement. On Shavuot we read the book of Rut. Rut is a love story that is different in its essence to Shir HaShirim. The love in the story Rut is of commitment and loyalty. It is love of self-sacrifice and selflessness. Rut demonstrates caring for the other more than you care about yourself. She puts aside her own aspirations to care for her mother-in-law Naomi and her husband Boaz. Shavuot is after the early romantic stage and is the time of strengthening connection and growth of unconditional love.

Unconditional love that strengthens with time is seen beautifully between a mother nursing her child. A mother dedicates herself to her baby despite her own needs. She sacrifices her own goals and sleep to care for her baby. When a mother feeds her baby, a hormone called oxytocin is released. Oxytocin stimulates milk to flow and simultaneously acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain. This powerful hormone connects mother and baby in love through breastmilk. Mothers are able to overcome the natural drive to put their own needs first in order to feed milk to their baby. Oxytocin creates an enduring connection of love. The hormone oxytocin is also called the love hormone. It is released throughout life between a husband and wife, in an embracing hug, with exercise, music, and when sharing a meal. Low levels of oxytocin have been linked to depression, including postpartum depression. Research has investigated giving oxytocin in pill form to ease symptoms of depression. Alas, there has been no success in replicating the effect of oxytocin. Unconditional love cannot be reduced to a pill.

There may not be a commandment to eat dairy, but we can be stringent in the tradition of eating cheesecake, mac and cheese, alfredo pasta, and blintzes – the eating of milk is a symbol of love and connection between Hashem and the Jewish people. Just like as a mother nourishes her child, the bond is strengthened. On Shavuot we received the Torah and, with it, Hashem’s unconditional love. By eating milk products our oxytocin connection is established, bonding us to each other and Hashem in unconditional love and care.

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