Today we mark the first day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. Few first days of the month in the Hebrew calendar serve as milestones of significance as does this date. Since the second evening of Passover, over six weeks ago, we have been counting the Omer, marking the beginning of each Hebrew day (in the evening) with a blessing and a ritual counting of the day. Like marking off days on a calendar in anticipation of a great event, counting the Omer is our Jewish anticipation-builder . . . for at the end of the counting we will have arrived at the 6th of Sivan, Shavuot, the festival marking the paradigm-creating revelation of Torah at Sinai. From the moment that our Israelite ancestors looked back at the Sea of Reeds behind them and found their pursuers drowning in the waters that God had held back for them, until approaching the wilderness of Sin (please don't get caught up in the coincidence between the English word "sin" and the Hebrew geographic term, there is really and truly no connection save coincidence) the Israelites had already experienced some elevating and some challenging moments: They had faced the uncertainties of food and water in the wilderness and learned to rely on God to sustain them; they had been introduced to Shabbat as a day of rest for God (who did not produce manna on Shabbat) and for themselves (they did not collect manna on Shabbat); they withstood a fierce attack by Amalek and his troops and were defended by Joshua and the Israelite troops sustained and inspired by God; Moses, advised by his father-in-law, Jethro, established a system of self-governance and dispute resolution . . . all before arriving at Sinai.
Although the walk to Sinai was through uncharted territory, the wandering of our ancestors was not random. The Israelites arrived at the third new moon . . . today's date, the beginning of the month of Sivan . . . guided by God's pillar of cloud during the day and pillar of fire by night and there they prepared themselves for the most extraordinary event they could not possibly anticipate.
I took a look at the challenges our walk from Passover to this first day of Sivan has involved as we, too, prepare to re-experience the revelation of Torah on Shavuot this coming week. We have mourned the victims of the Holocaust and shuddered when notes bearing Nazi rhetoric were handed to Jews attending Passover services in the Ukraine. We have found compassion and the conviction to speak out on behalf of the abducted schoolgirls of Nigeria, a compelling contemporary parallel to our own slavery story. We have organized to lobby for poverty-alleviating legislation here in Rhode Island. We have mourned both the troops who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the State of Israel and those who gave their lives for the establishment and defense of the United States of America in two Memorial Days. Even in these GPS-guided days, our wanderings take us through uncharted territory.
We know that something great is going to happen next week. We have the advantage over our wilderness-walking ancestors in knowing that the revelatory moment awaiting us can bring wisdom and guidance, inspiration and challenge. The Sinai revelation was not a one-time event . . . our tradition teaches us that revelatory moments happen throughout time. When we come together as a community on Shavuot this week, let us stand shoulder-to-shoulder ready to accept the renewal of covenant with God which is the glue that binds us together . . . binds us to God and binds us to each other.
Letting the eternal and eternally renewing teachings of Torah into our daily lives will guide our walking and provide us with goals and aspirations and the tools to navigate the complexities we encounter in life.
This week's parashah/ Torah reading, Ki Tissa, doesn't offer much tranquility . . . as we have gone from meteorological storm to meteorological storm this week, our ancient ancestors in the wilderness underwent emotional storm after emotional storm.
Moses, descending from Sinai, shatters the Tables of the Covenant just created by God. Fury, frustration, incomprehension are all packed into this moment.
In the aftermath, God tersely instructs the Israelites that they will embrace and adhere to the following:
For you shall not bow down to another god---because Adonay: His name is Jealous, He is a jealous God--that you not make a covenant with the resident of the land . . . .You shall not make molten gods for yourself. You shall observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, which I commanded you . . . Every first birth of a womb is Mine, and all your animals that have a male first birth, ox or sheep. You shall redeem every firstborn of your sons. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Six days you shall work, and in the seventh day you shall cease: In plowing time and in harvest, you shall cease. And you shall make a Festival of Weeks, of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Gathering at the end of the year. . . . You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice on leavened bread. You shall bring the first of the firstfruits of you land to the house of Adonay your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (excerpted from Sh'mot/Exodus 34: 14-26, Friedman translation)
This has a ring of the Aseret Hadibrot / Ten Utterances / Ten Commandments of course. Especially in the opening strictures of not bowing down to another God and not making molten images. Clearly, at the moment, these commandments needed repeating: the people had just contravened exactly these commandments in their building and worshipping the golden calf.
The rest of the list is interesting and does depart from the familiar Ten Commandments list:
The unique place of the firstborn of animals and humans as dedicated to God.
The stricture against blood sacrifice.
The first fruits offering.
The prohibition against cooking meat in milk.
The list is quite different from the Ten Commandments list in that the theme of mitzvot guiding the relationship among humans is missing, the "mitzvot bein adam l'havero" commandments between one person and another: there is not "you shall not steal," "you shall not murder," "honor your father and your mother," . . . Every mitzvah on this post-golden calf list is in the category of "bein adam lamakom", "between a person and God." These are mitzvot about our relating to God.
In contemplating this list, it strikes me that this is a list of mitzvot that place our consciousness of our relationship to God before us on an ongoing basis. These are mitzvot that are scattered throughout our day, our week, our year, guiding us to constantly keep in mind that we are in relationship with God at all times.
God has learned, the hard way, that among the frailties of human beings we must count short memories and lack of confidence. After the glory of the redemption at the Sea of Reeds, the awe of the revelation at Sinai . . . within weeks we were building an idol and looking to worship it. Anathema to God and a complete dismissal of the commitment (na'aseh v'nishma . . . we will do, we will obey) we had made at Sinai.
Ours is a tradition that puts our relationship with God before us all day, every day, in a multitude of ways. Ours is not a one-day-a-week tradition or a tradition that can easily be pigeon-holed. Judaism is at its richest and most meaningful and most inspiring when we engage with it every day.
Moses, by Michaelangelo
Have you ever heard someone say: "Those people still think Jews have horns!!"
It's an image that has become the iconic expression of ignorant anti-semitism. We consider that a person who "still thinks Jews have horns" is a person who lives in such an isolated, ignorant world that they have never met a Jewish person.
It's an anti-semitic image that has been around for a very long time. But where did it come from?
Amazingly enough, this negative image that has plagued Jews for centuries is rooted in bad translation!
In this week's Torah portion, the Israelites are in the wilderness waiting for Moses to come down from Mount Sinai. God and Moses have been in "executive session" for forty days and nights, and the people are getting nervous. When Moses returns, the Torah reports:"And the children of Israel saw that "karan" the face skin of the Moses' face."
וְרָאוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֶת-פְּנֵי מֹשֶׁה, כִּי קָרַן, עוֹר פְּנֵי מֹשֶׁה
The key is the word קרן / karan. The correct translation is the past tense verb, "shone" . . . but at some point along the way, someone mis-translated the word as the noun "keren" meaning "horn." Hence, Moses . . . and by association, Jews . . . have horns.
But Moses' face was infused with light from his proximity with God during the revelation of the Torah. This imagery is one of our most elevating legacies from Moses . . . we, too, can be infused with light in the presence of God and in our engagement with Torah.
So, we may not have horns . . . but we do have light!
This week's parashah / Torah portion continues the revelation at Sinai begun during last week's dramatic, shofar-blasts-smoke-and-thunder forging of the brit/covenant between God and Israel.
This week's chapters of Torah settle down to the task of laying out our responsibilities as we fulfill our commitment to maintain our covenant with God. The scope and diversity of the mitzvot / commandments delivered in our parashah, Mishpatim (which literally translates as "laws") is are tremendously comprehensive. As we look through laws that outline our relationships with other human beings, with God, with other elements of creation, like animals and plants, the realization dawns that our tradition is holistic . . . our thoughts, our actions, our aspirations can all be elevated and bring holiness to the world if we turn to the Torah and the covenant for guidance. "One who steals a man, and has sold him, or he was found in his hand, will be put to death." (Exodus/Sh'mot 21:16) "And if an ox will gore a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall be stoned, and its meat shall not be eaten--and the ox's owner is innocent. And if it was a goring ox from the day before yesterday, and it had been so testified to is owner, and he did not watch it, and it killed a man or a woman, the ox will be stoned, and its owner will be put to death as well." (21:28-29) "You shall not bring up a false report. Do not join your hand with a wicked person to be a malevolent witness." (23:1) "And you shall not oppress an alien--since you know the alien's soul, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt." (23:9) "And six years you shall sow your land and gather its produce; and the seventh: you shall let it lie fallow and leave it, and your people's indigent will eat it. You shall do this to your vineyard, to your olives." (23:10-11) "You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (23:19)
Few of us in East Greenwich have fields to leave fallow (and anyway, that particular mitzvah is reserved for Jewish-owned fields in Israel) or have to worry about the behavior of our ox. But the values couched in those ancient middle-eastern realia find expression in our own practices, traditions and standards today.
This past Sunday morning, our third, fourth, and fifth graders, their parents and even a few grandparents gathered at the Frenchtown Road Stop and Shop for a "Mishpatim Moment." After having studied about kashrut in class with teacher Joie Magnone, our students and parents met at the supermarket to put theory into practice. Armed with a booklet showing a variety of kosher symbols and a shopping list of ten items to find that sported those symbols, our kosher shoppers took off: salad dressing, pasta, breakfast cereal, prune juice, crackers, canned peaches . . . we spread through the store collecting kosher non-perishibles.
Lesson #1 learned: It's actually pretty easy to eat kosher. Most of our favorite national brands are kosher!
After checking everyone's basket and purchasing our 10 items per family, we arrived at Lesson #2: We met Susan Adler, Director of the Jewish Seniors Agency, which runs the Chester Full Plate Kosher Food Pantry. Sue accepted our kosher offerings with enthusiasm and promised to stock the shelves of the pantry for the over 125 clients of the JSA who are food insecure . . . who do not always know where their next meal is coming from.
Our Mishpatim Moment: We learned a bit about what kosher food is and how to find it . . . and we got it into onto the tables of those in our community who need it most.
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.
4: Genesis/Breishit 11:5-8 -- "And Adonay went down to see the city and the tower that the children of humankind had built. And Adonay said, "Here, they're one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they've begun to do. And now there will be no challenge to anything they initiate together. Come, let's go down and babble their language so they won't understand each other's language. And Adonay scattered them from there over the face of the earth. . . " God blesses our diversity, our different approaches to life and expects us to exercise our intellectual and spiritual and creative gifts. God does not intend for us to be homogenous and of one opinion or one outlook. (Which is a good thing considering the "two Jews three opinions" principle!)
3: Genesis/Breishit 15: 9-10, 12-14, 17-18 -- And God said to Avram, "Take a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a dove and a pigeon for Me. And he took all of these for God and split
them in the middle and set each half opposite its other half . . . And the sun was about to set, and a slumber came over Avram . . . and God said to Avram, "You shall know that your seed will be alien in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will degrade them four hundred years. But I'll judge the nation they will serve, and after that they'll go out with much property. . . . and the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke, and a flame of fire that went between the pieces. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram, saying, "I've given this land to your seed . . . . " This takes a little "unpacking." Scholars of ancient near eastern history tell us that when neighboring local landowners made a treaty, they would take an animal, cut it in half, spread the two halves apart, and then each landowner would walk between the parts of the severed animal. This was ancient near eastern choreography expressing: "May my fate be like that of this severed animal if I do not keep up my part of our treaty." With that insight, the flame of fire passing between the pieces becomes a breathtaking divine declaration and commitment to Avram: May My fate, God is saying, be like that of these animals, if I do not keep My part of this covenant with you and your descendants, Avram." God is with us for the duration.
2: Exodus/Sh'mot 4:25 -- And Zipporah took a flint and cut her son's foreskin.... This is part of one of the most abstruse and puzzling passages in the Torah, but the one clear element of the story is that Zipporah, Moses' wife, took the transmission of the covenant into her own hands by ritually circumcising their infant son. Women's spiritual insight and religious initiatives are just as much a part of our tradition as are the spiritual insights and religious initiatives of the men of our communities.
1: Exodus/Sh'mot 24:7 -- And Moses took the scroll of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, "We will do everything that Adonay has spoken, and we will obey/listen." This is the moment we made the transition from a collection of individuals and extended families to a people, to a community. In an unprecedented (and yet-to-be-reproduced) moment of consensus, our entire people committed to the covenant offered to us by God at Sinai. נעשה / na'aseh: we will do it. נשמע / nishma: we will hear/internalize the terms of the brit/covenant. And here we are, three thousand years later, celebrating the eternity of our covenant with God. Wow.
Ok. I admit, there are way more than 5 reasons I love Torah . . . maybe I'll share another 5 with you next year in my pre-Simhat Torah blog . . . but there is so much to celebrate in our Torah, and I can't wait to celebrate it with you. The wisdom, the perspective, the compassion, the eternal values, the roots of community, our very identity . . . it's all in our Torah.
It is hardly an astonishing assertion to state that this week's פָרָשָה / parashah / Torah Reading marks a turning point in the relationship between God and b'nai yisrael / the progeny of Israel. It is in Yitro that Moshe will climb the heights of Sinai and return with luchot hab'rit / the tablets of the law. The brit / the covenant between God and Israel is forged at this moment.
This moment of the revelation of the Torah is not the first time that Moshe has experienced unique, intense communications from and, indeed, conversations with God. From the opening chapters of the book of Sh'mot / Exodus, with the iconic moment of the burning bush, God and Moshe are in almost constant communication.
This moment of revelation of the Torah is, however, the very first time that Israel experiences revelation as a community. The passages of this week's parasha relate: "And Moses said to the people, 'Don't be afraid, because God is coming for the purpose of testing you and for the purpose that His awe will be on your faces so that you won't sin.' And the people stood at a distance, and Moses went over to the nimbus where God was. And Adonay said to Moses, 'You shall say this to the children of Israel: You have seen that I have spoken with you from the skies. You shall not make gods of silver with me, and you shall not make gods of gold for yourselves...In every place where I'll have My name commemorated, I'll come to you and bless you.'" (Sh'mot/Exodus 20: 17-20)
As our tradition developed from sacrifice-centric Israelite biblical religion to the halachah / Jewish law- based rabbinic Judaism we practice today, the centrality of community has been a consistent and treasured dynamic of our people. There are so many elements of Judaism that guide us into community: We need 10 adult Jews to conduct a service. We need 10 adult Jews to read from the Torah scrolls. We need a cemetery, which only a community can maintain. We need kosher food, which requires a critical mass of Jews to sustain. We welcome a new child into the world as a minyan, representing the entire Jewish people embracing this new child as one of "ours." When one of our community passes away, we surround the mourners and help them bury their dead, we sit with them for a week (during shiva) and make sure they have company, meals and community support to say kaddish.
"In every place where I'll have My name commemorated, I'll come to you and bless you." What does "commemorating God's name mean?" I'd say it means standing together as a minyan, as a community, an uttering words that we cannot utter as individuals. It is through Jewish community that we thrive. It is almost impossible to sustain Jewish life in isolation: we need education, we need the spiritual and emotional support of those who share that brit/covenant with us.
"In every place where I'll have My name commemorated, I'll come to you and bless you." I've often said that our Jewish community is a blessing. This revelation of God's confirms just that: it is through Jewish community that we find blessing: the blessing of God's presence, the blessing of each other's presence.
Parashat Yitro Torah Reading: Exodus 18:1-20:23
This Shabbat, our Torah reading relates the unique, definitive moment of the revelation at Sinai. The people (and the Midrash teaches us, every Jewish soul for all time) are gathered together in the middle of the wilderness to receive the Torah, God's most precious gift to our people.
The Torah is our foundation, it is the sacred text that establishes God's role in the world and God's relationship with our ancestors, the Israelites. The Torah preserves the core of our collective identity and provides us with infinite inspiration and guidance.
With all this in mind, I find a teaching from the early rabbinic compilation, the Mishnah (compiled by the end of the 1st century) to be perplexing:
"Rabbi Yossi says: 'be prepared to learn Torah, for it is not part of your natural inheritance . . . '" (Mishnah Avot 2:15)
Now I would have made the case that this week's Torah reading establishes for all time that the Torah is precisely, the inheritance of every generation of the Jewish people. What can Rabbi Yossi mean by his statement?
The best way to understand Rabbi Yossi's statement is to read both parts together: we need to learn Torah . . . why? because we haven't inherited it. Perhaps "inheriting Torah" in this context means inheriting qualities like our senses, intuition, intelligence, our emotional and spiritual lives.
Rabbi Yossi reinforces for us the centrality of Torah in our lives . . . Torah is as essential to our existence and character as our intelligence, our intuition, our senses and our emotional and spiritual lives. But unlike those qualities, we need to make the effort to integrate Torah into the fabric of our lives, it does not happen naturally like those other inherited qualities.
There is a beautiful tradition in which we stand as the revelation at Sinai is read from the Torah scroll each year on this Shabbat. Here is body language for acknowledging the wisdom of Rabbi Yossi's insight: we can't sit back and receive Torah passively, we need to stand, to step into revelation. We need to learn.
Parashat Vayikra Torah Reading: Leviticus 1:1-5:26
This Shabbat we begin reading the third book of the Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus. In historic rabbinic circles, this book is also referred to as "Torat Kohanim" or "Instruction to the Priests."
We generally do not think about Judaism having priests . . . but during the millennia in which Israelite religion centered on the portable Tabernacle/Mishkan in the wilderness years through the times of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem (the last iteration of which was destroyed by the forces of the Roman Empire in 70 ce) it was the Kohanim, the Priestly Class that played a central role in all public rituals and observances. The Kohanim were the experts in matters of ritual, sacrifice and even certain types of disease and environmental contamination.
The Torah book of Leviticus/Vayikra served as their manual of instruction.
It is interesting to me, and I think significant in terms of the ethos of Judaism, that this Priestly Manual was a matter of public record, and not a document that was available only to the Kohanim themselves. Throughout human history, for as far back as we have been able to reconstruct the precepts of organized religion, there has been a tendency to keep access to certain knowledge limited to a closed circle of religious leaders.
This has never been the case in Judaism. Although there were certain rituals and certain observances that could only be performed by a kohein/priest during the millennia during which the Israelite sacrificial cult was practiced, the rules that those kohanim had to learn were accessible in the text of the Torah which was public knowledge as part of God's revelation to the entire people of Israel.
To this day, there is no secret learning that is shared only with rabbis. Understanding the fine points of Jewish law, history, custom and theology requires time and effort. But the richness of our tradition is available and accessible to anyone who wants to delve into it.
What a unique blessing is the very presence of this book of Vayikra/Leviticus in our Torah!
Parashat Yitro Torah Reading: Exodus 18:1-20:23
During this week's Torah reading, an extraordinary thing is going to happen. We are going to stand as a community to receive Torah again as our Torah reader, Harold Labush, reads for us the biblical account of the revelation at Mount Sinai.
Why are we going to stand?
Standing is, of course, one accessible way of demonstrating the importance of the text. Although all of the Torah is precious to us, and there is an infinite amount we can learn from Torah, the moment of revelation at Sinai is unique. This revelation is the Torah's first collective revelation (up to this moment, God has communicated with individuals up to now (Abraham, Isaac, Rebekkah, Moses . . .). Now, at Sinai, the entire people Israel are gathered together and experience this moment of revelation as a collective. Indeed, the homiletic rabbinic genre of Midrash teaches us that every Jewish soul of every generation . . . each of us . . . was present at Sinai, not just the generation alive at that time.
Standing is also an active rather than a passive position. For most of the year, we sit comfortably in our seats while Harold reads the words of the Torah to us. We follow along in the Hebrew, we read the accompanying English, we browse the commentaries or day dream. But when we arrive at this unique moment of divine communication we do not sit back and contemplate the text from a distance, we enter into the moment by standing as a community, a covenanted community.
Many of you may have already heard my favorite Peanuts cartoon:
Charlie Brown, Sally and Snoopy are sitting on a big sofa.
Charlie has a huge book on his lap and he is reading to Sally. He is reading the Genesis story of the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah and how Lot and his wife are escaping the city. Against God's instructions, Lot's wife turns back and looks at the destruction behind her and she is turned into a pillar of salt.
Sally is listening to this story wide-eyed and completely absorbed in the plot. She is soaking in every word.
Snoopy, at the far end of the sofa, looks back at Charlie and says: "But, what happened to their dog!"
Each of these three is a role model:
Charlie is the role model of teacher of Torah (close to my heart, of course). He is passing on the tradition.
Sally is the role model of student. Engaged totally in the tradition being transmitted to her.
But Snoopy is my hero. Because Snoopy doesn't just read the story, or listen to the story, he inserts himself into the story.
That is what we do when we stand for tomorrow morning's account of the revelation at Sinai . . . we emulate Snoopy and see ourselves reflected in the words of Torah.
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.