Wednesday, June 8, 2011
Slightly Belated Shavuot Commentary: May We All Stand Together at Sinai
Today and, for many tomorrow, is the festival of Shavuot (Weeks), also known as “The Time of the Giving of Our Torah.” In the Torah itself, Shavuot is simply referred to as one of the three pilgrimage festivals (along with Passover and Sukkot). It takes place after seven weeks of counting from the second day of Passover and is the holiday when the people would bring their first fruits before God. Later, in rabbinic times, it became primarily associated with the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It has always struck me as strange that the other seminal events of our biblical ancestors were celebrated with a festival, but the original biblical holiday cycle had no holiday to celebrate what we often see as THE seminal event. Why did the Exodus receive Passover and our 40 years of wandering in the desert get Sukkot, while the giving of the Ten Commandments/Torah at Mt. Sinai initially received nothing?
There are those in the world of biblical/historical criticism who point to this fact, along with the number of times in psalms and elsewhere in which the exodus, wanderings and entry into the Promised Land are mentioned without any mention of Mount Sinai to suggest that the giving of the Torah at Sinai was actually a later addition to the narrative. This may well be true, but I am not here to discuss or debate the historical veracity of Sinai, but to see what me might learn from the” Time of the Giving of Our Torah” in this day and age from a mindfulness perspective.
In meditating on this question I was drawn to the word “our”, as in “our Torah.” It is not simply the time of giving the Torah, but OUR Torah. Traditionally, “our” means the Jewish people, the descendants of the ancient Israelites. Tradition teaches that all Jewish souls that would ever exist were present at Mount Sinai. All Israelites and future Jews were part of the divine-human encounter of which we read in the Torah itself. This is part of the bigger picture of viewing the Jewish people as the Chosen People or as an am segulah/treasured people (the preferred biblical term), as it states in the Torah.
However, if I adhere to the belief that everything and everyone is connected within what I chose to call God, and that there is a oneness to the universe, then how can I believe that only certain souls were present for this mythic moment or that one group is chosen over another? This is especially problematic if the underlying principle of unity claims that there is ultimately only one soul of which we are all a part and thereby no individual or group can truly be set apart.
When we look more closely at the narrative, we also find other “texts of separation,” as I will call them. The men are commanded not to go near a woman for three days prior to the main event. And beyond that, there were boundaries set around the mountain and the tribes were stationed in a specific way as well. All of these together seem to have intentionally created a system of divisions and separations, even though the ultimate belief was that this event belonged to all of the people and their descendants, ad infinitum.
If this entire scenario were the creation of later authors who added it to the Torah, then I would posit that everything that created separation between Israelites/Jews and others, or within the Israelite/Jewish people, were created with a specific agenda in mind that was meant to reinforce the distinctions and separations which they purport were part of the original scenario. As I said before, I am not going to discuss or debate whether or not the events at Sinai occurred. However, what I am challenging is the way in which they are described. For whether one views the giving of the Torah as mythic or historical, I do not believe that these distinctions are in keeping with what I believe is the Divine order of the world. Therefore, I reject that they are part of the original narrative. And I reject the assumptions that they carry with them.
If I were to rewrite the Sinai narrative I would remove all of the distinction. All of us would be standing together at Sinai, regardless of gender, sex, religions, nationality, skin color, sexual orientation, nationality or any other artificial distinctions we humans have created in order to separate and divide us from each other and from God. Indeed, I believe we WERE all standing together at Sinai, each of us hearing the word of God, as we understood it. Even the rabbis said that all at Sinai heard the voice of God “according to one’s own strength.” And so one message issued forth, and still does today in “our time” and in each and every moment. These messages issue forth from the time and place that we call Sinai. It is a message of oneness and unity. A message of peace, compassion and harmony. But the divisions and distinctions we have created have caused the message to become garbled or incomprehensible to so many. And so we imagine what we believe the voice to be saying. And those messages we create are the messages of violence, hatred, and bigotry. The voices that destroy rather than perpetuate the Divine created order.
And so on this Shavuot, let us think of all humanity as an am segulah/treasured people, each person in their own way a treasure of God’s. Let us not think of any group as chosen over another. Let us instead observe this festival as the moment of the giving of our Torah – of everyone’s Torah. The giving of the teaching and the message that belongs to us all. In each moment we may hear it a little differently, but the essence is always what I mentioned above. If we do this, then perhaps one day we will come to realize that our entire world is indeed Sinai, a place where the Divine message goes forth and unites us all in Shalom, Salaam, unity and peace. Amen.
Posted by Rabbi Steven Nathan at 8:23 PM
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