This week's parashah / Torah portion includes one of our people's defining moments: the revelation at Mount Sinai.
With a real sense of the dramatic, the Torah describes this moment:
"Now Mount Sinai smoked all over, since Adonay had come down upon it in fire; its smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace, and all of the mountain trembled exceedingly. Now the shofar sound was growing exceedingly stronger--Moshe kept speaking, and God kept answering him in the sound." (Sh'mot/Exodus 19:18-19)
I've often tried to imagine what it was like to stand at the bottom of that mountain, hear what our ancestors heard, see what our ancestors saw. It must have been overwhelming to all the senses . . . intense and awe-filled.
In the summer of 1979, I had the opportunity to travel to the site referred to today as Mount Sinai. Even though I was engaged as one of four counselors leading 80 teenagers through the Sinai desert, I still had the time to pick up my head and look where we were: a vast, stark, unchanging landscape. Not a vestige of fire and smoke, not a hint of thunder, shofar and the voice of God. The stage was empty. My surroundings conspired to teach me the limitations of my mortality.
Today the mountain referred to in the travel books as Mount Sinai (the site of the the Santa Katarina Monastery) is indistinguishable from the surrounding mountains in the Sinai wilderness. If ever the pyrotechnics described in Sh'mot/Exodus did take place on that mountain, if ever God's voice was somehow sensed by the Israelite former slaves huddled at the foot of the mountain, there is no perceptible trace today. Mount Sinai looks like any other height in that neighborhood of awe-inspiring, beautifully tinted hills.
What a perfect setting for God's definitive collective revelation to an entire people. The message of that venue is that there is not one locale to which we must return in order to receive God's message to us. We don't really know which height was the height of Sinai. There is no trace because we should not be able to trace a path back to that place. God met us, as a people, in the middle of nowhere because God can be accessible to us in the middle of anywhere.
The photograph on the left is of a street sign in Jerusalem. As is the standard in that holy city, every street sign bears the name of the street in Israel's three official languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.
Only in the Hebrew does there appear a short explanation of the street name, or a short description of the person for whom the street has been named. In the case of Martin Luther King Street in Jerusalem, the epitaph appears: An American Leader. A warrior for equal rights in the United States.
This past Monday, people all over the United States, and, indeed, people all over the world, came together in celebration and remembrance . . . and appreciated the confluence of . . . President Obama's second inauguration and the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. There is no question that Reverend King would have been bursting with pride had he survived to enjoy the sight of Barak Obama taking the oath of office of President of the United States. The fact that President Obama's hand rested on Reverend King's bible . . . and Abraham Lincoln's bible . . . acknowledged with humility that President Lincoln and Reverend King made it possible for his hand to rest on their bibles.
I think, though, that Reverend King would also have acknowledged that, although we have come a long way from slavery, we have not yet reached the Promised Land. For Reverend King, visionary that he was, looking into the Promised Land in which race will be a non-issue, was also a clear-eyed leader, engaged in the real-world struggles that shackled innocent people of integrity.
For Reverend King, this week's Torah reading, Beshallach, was profoundly resonant: the people may have left slavery behind, but there is a long way to go before we reach the Promised Land. There are milestones along the way: manna and water, civil rights legislation and a black President of the United States, the attack of the Amalekites and the inordinate percentage of people of color living in poverty . . . . We are still wandering.
The Jerusalem street sign standing at the corner of Emek Refa'im and Martin Luther King Street is a banner of tribute to a man of courage who drew inspiration from the text originally written in the Hebrew of the street sign, and the Jerusalem street. That Jerusalem street sign, proclaiming Martin Luther King street, in the city at the heart of the Promised Land, also stands as a warning against complacence: Jewish sovereignty over the State of Israel does not mean that the journey is over. The inequities within Israeli society: economic, ethnic, educational must also be resolved before we can declare that the journey is over.
This week's parashah/Torah portion contains one of my most favorite passages. Moshe and Aaron are back in front of Pharaoh for yet another round of pre-plague negotiations. Pharaoh asks who among the Israelites would go out into the wilderness to worship the God of the Israelites if Pharaoh were to give his permission. Moshe replies:
"We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and our daughters..." (Sh'mot/Exodus 10:9).
Pharaoh's reply is infused with skepticism: "He said to them, "Adonay would be with you like that, when I would let you and your infants go! . . . It is not like that. Go--the men!-- and serve Adonay, because that is what you're asking." (10: 10-11)
There is a good deal of formal counting of "noses" in the Torah: before getting ready to leave Egypt, at significant junctures in the 40 years of wandering, on the eve of entering the Land . . . Israel gets counted. In those counts, we've seen that it is the men who get counted: the heads of the tribes get counted, the heads of the households get counted, the males fit for military service get counted. So we might get the impression that women don't count in our defining text as the foundations of Judaism are laid down.
This passage shows us otherwise. Yes, males get counted when there needs to be a sense of how many political or socio-economic units make up the עם/ahm/nation of Israel, how strong a military force is available to defend our people. But when Moshe and Aaron are talking about who goes and who stays, the definition of עם is inclusive: men and women, young and old, sons and daughters, the able-bodied and the frail, the economically significant and the dependent. Moshe makes it clear to Pharaoh that when Israel leaves Egypt it will be all of Israel, every single Israelite soul counts.
So it is in the best of Jewish communities today: everyone counts. Everyone is valued for the talents and the experience and the intelligence and the creativity and the humor and the dedication and the resources we each bring to the community . . . each individual's configuration of these elements is valued as essential to the well-being of the community as a whole. No one has it all: some of us are great organizers. Some of us brainstorm inspiring ideas. Some of us reach deep into our pockets. Some of us are there to support mourners. Some of us lighten the mood at meetings. Some of us bask in the limelight. Some of us thrive behind the scenes.
One of my most beloved "us" moments here at Torat Yisrael is our Torah at the Table Shabbat morning study sessions (the second and fourth Saturdays of the month at 9:15 am). Around the table, covered with munchies and coffee mugs and chumashim/bibles, we read and discuss Torah. Any given Torah at the Table can see Cohen School kids and their parents, empty-nesters and grandparents, all studying Torah together, all listening to and pondering each others questions and suggestions. That's us. A community of young and old, sons and daughters brought together by Torah.
Moses described it. We live it.
This Shabbat we turn over a new leaf on our Jewish calendars and make the transition from the end of the month of Tevet to the new month of Shevat.
In the normal course of life lived by the Gregorian calendar (That's the January, February one....), the only new month that is marked by more than "it's the first of the month, what bills are due?" is, of course, January . . . and that is by virtue of its place as the first month of the new year. Oh, and April, of course (April Fool's Day and "yikes! my tax returns are due in two weeks! . . . hmm, do you think there's some connection there?). The word "month" has its etymological roots in the word for "moon," which does reflect the thirty-ish day cycle from new moon to new moon which defines the thirty-six day duration of the month.
In our Jewish, lunar calendar, the beginning of each new month is an opportunity to pause for a spiritual refresher. Our liturgy is enhanced by an additional unit called "Hallel" ("praise"), a series of psalms bracketed with blessings focussing on our desire to praise God for the blessings in our lives, for God's redeeming acts and our hopes for the continuation of those blessings and ultimate redemption.
The significance of a thirty-day cycle has not been lost on the sages who have shaped our tradition, and so the beginning of each new month in our Jewish calendar is considered to be a semi-holiday for women. In some communities, women won't engaged in their most common "food, clothing, shelter" activities like sewing or knitting or even cooking and cleaning. There is also a lovely tradition of women coming together on the first evening of the new month to study together, eat together, sing together . . . whatever nourishes their souls.
This special day, the first day of the Hebrew month is called Rosh Hodesh. There is a familiar ring to this term, as we know that the beginning of the new Jewish year is called "Rosh Hashanah" . . . "rosh" meaning "head" or "beginning" or "top;" "shanah" meaning "year."
So, you've probably surmised that "Hodesh" means "month."
But the Hebrew word "Hodesh" has nothing to do with the moon, or the number thirty . . .
Of all languages, I'd say that Hebrew is one of the easiest to learn as a second language . . . there is a pretty logical and consistent structure. Not to say there aren't any exceptions, but way fewer than English, for example. Hebrew words are built around a three-letter root and words related by meaning to that root are formed by adding prefixes and suffixes and changing around the vowels on that three-letter root.
So, for example, our Hebrew word "Hodesh," (month) is based on the three-letter root: ח ד ש
You'll get a sense for the meaning associated with our Hebrew word for month by looking at other words that are formed from Hodesh's three-letter root, like:
חדש / hadash which means "new"
חידוש / hidush which means "innovation"
להתחדש / l'hit'hadeish which means "to renew"
So, woven into our Jewish concept of month is a sense of newness. A mini-clean-slate opportunity to gather our thoughts and our resources and our intentions and do a little better. An opportunity for a new perspective as the seasons change. A moment to appreciate the blessings in our lives, the proper functioning of our bodies, the significance of our friends in our lives. For women, a tradition-based appreciation of our gender.
Each חודש / hodesh / month of our Jewish year has its own special character, which is often drawn from the holidays or holy days that take place during that month. Elul, the month preceding Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, is a time for introspection. Kislev, the month in which Hanukah occurs, is a time to contemplate the power of light and the significance of Jewish identity. Nissan, the month in which Passover occurs, is a time for the appreciation of the renewal of life in the spring and our gratitude to God for redemption and inspiration.
Shevat, the month that begins this Shabbat (and it's just a coincidence that Rosh Hodesh falls on Shabbat this month) is a time to look forward to spring, to appreciate seasons, to renew our commitment to take care of the natural world created and entrusted to us by God. On the 15th of the month of Shevat, we pause to enjoy some of the foods indigenous to the Land of Israel which bring sweetness and sustenance to our lives in an evocative (and fun!) T'u Bishevat Seder.
This year, here at Torat Yisrael, we will celebrate these delicious and inspirational foods at our T'u Bishevat Seder on Friday, January 25th at 5:15 pm. We'll enjoy the food and songs and readings, and then enjoy a family-friendly Shabbat dinner, concluding the evening with our 7:30 pm Shabbat evening service and Oneg Shabbat. I hope you'll join us!
On Wednesday afternoon, I had the privilege of walking in procession to our Statehouse as part of the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty in Rhode Island. A band of drummers from a number of different faith communities led us from Gloria Dei Church to the Statehouse . . . I walked with ministers and rabbis and imams, Quaker community leaders, a Swami and Buddhist priests. There is a tremendous amount, in terms of theology, that divides us. There is a tremendous amount, in terms of our regard for the human spirit created by God (however we conceptualize the divine) that draws us together.
We came together, as we have done every year for the last four years, at the opening of the legislative session of the Rhode Island General Assembly, to stand together to convey our prayer that our elected officials will raise the needs of Rhode Island's vulnerable residents to the top of their legislative priority list.
Maxine Richman, co-chair of the Interfaith Coalition, stood shoulder to shoulder with Governor Lincoln Chaffee and acknowledged with pride that our Governor became the first in the United States to sign into law a Homeless Bill of Rights.
Clergy, advocates, shelter residents, food pantry clients and compassionate neighbors all filled the Statehouse rotunda and the surrounding balconies to demonstrate that the momentum of our General Assembly must continue to build to address the needs of so many within our state who are vulnerable: children and adults who do not have a roof over their heads, are deciding weekly whether to buy medicine or heat their home, eating breakfast in rotation through the course of the week because there is not enough food in the house for everyone to leave for school and work with food in their stomachs . . .
Naming the Need
This Shabbat we read the opening chapter of the book of Sh'mot. The word "Sh'mot" means "Names" and the text goes on to name those descendants of Jacob who went down to Egypt and whose progeny would ultimately be enslaved there.
This week, in Rhode Island, we recall the names of the needs which bind our neighbors all over our state*:
*Statistics released by the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.