Monday, May 18, 2015

My Ancestors were at Sinai, and All I Got Was this Parchment?

For the past six weeks, I’ve been counting the days. Today is the 45th day in the counting of the Omer, the seven weeks that connect Pesach to Shavuot.

(original image from

Some people I know spend their entire day with numbers. Financial advisers, data analysts, math teachers and students find meaning in numbers. Since I’m none of these, I often wonder what is the meaning that can be found in counting 49 days?

At this point in the count, I’m keenly aware of the goal, the 50th day, Shavuot. On this day we reenact, even in our imagination, the moment at Sinai when Torah was/is perpetually revealed.

Reenacting the Exodus is very familiar to us. Our elaborate Seder ritual is intended to help us imagine/remember/believe that we were all freed from Egypt. Our seders (Heb. sedarim) impel us to recommit ourselves to ending the oppression of all peoples.

Reenacting the Sinai experience takes an extra dose of imagination. We have no rituals and no concrete symbols on our tables to remind us of the experience of Sinai. Add to that the distance many of us feel from Torah, from God, and from revelation. They are abstract concepts. They are archaic.

My experience of Torah is much more expansive than our usual definition of Torah as the scroll in the ark, or even Torah as the Five Books of Moses. If we limited ourselves to the literal words of Torah, Jews would be hobbled in our observance, theology, and identity.

The Torah scroll recalls the experience of the ancient Israelites, our ancestors. They were not yet Jews. Their rituals included animal sacrifice and offerings of flour, oil and wine. They had no synagogues, no prayer books, not even a Torah scroll!

The story of our ancestors, as told in the Torah, ends before they enter the Land of Israel. Our history begins where Torah ends, with settlement, sovereignty, exile, destruction, return, and ultimately, dispersion across the globe.

Judaism, as Mordecai Kaplan defined it, is the evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people. The vast majority of what we know as “Jewish” is absent in the Torah itself.

So why celebrate receiving Torah at Sinai? What makes this event relevant to our lives?

Torah, the book, is the seed from which all of Judaism has flowered. As such, “receiving Torah” means receiving the rich 3000-year heritage, the libraries full of texts, the commentary, literature, ethics, philosophy, and history that derive from and elaborate on Torah. Torah also means the lived experience of the evolving Jewish civilization: music and arts, flavors and cuisine, costumes and customs of our people.

On Shavuot, we reenact the revelation by reading the words of Torah that our ancestors used to describe an indescribably experience. While we will read “The Ten Words” (or 10 commandments), the focus is not on the content but the earth-shaking transformative experience that turned an enslaved people into a self-governing people, that changed their literal, concrete polytheistic world-view into an abstract understanding of the oneness of Being.

The Sages teach that written Torah (the words on the scroll) were transmitted along with Oral Torah (Jewish interpretive texts). From the Sages’ point of view, at the moment at Sinai, human beings received the expanded insight that led to generations of deliberation on the meaning of Torah and how it is to be lived in our everyday lives.

Torah in this expanded sense is a gift that we open up and receive in new ways continually. We hope to experience that mind-blowing, heart-opening moment ourselves.

One custom for Shavuot, developed by the Kabbalists of Tsfat in the 16th century, is to stay up all night studying, to reenact the preparations our ancestors made to hear that revelation. This has become a beloved custom, which we can engage in with the greater Boston community on Saturday night, May 23, in Brookline. For as many hours as you can muster, you may choose from workshops and study sessions from the rich Jewish civilization into the wee hours, even until dawn if you choose. And as we often say, all of us actually stood at Sinai, we will share this learning experience with Jews of many different backgrounds, of all ages and stages. It’s the closest I’ve ever felt to experiencing Sinai.

My hope is that, like the Passover seder, the experience of Sinai on Shavuot impels us to action. By reminding us of all that our ancestors wrote, thought, described, and shared, and encouraging us to add our own ideas and experiences to that tradition, we recommit ourselves to Torah. I hope that we will be inspired to continue delving into our evolving religious civilization, to learn and to grow as our Israelite ancestors did, from our enslavement to attitudes and habits and toward expanded awareness.