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Shavu'ot
5773/ 2013
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Thank you for your interest in my sermons. I hope you enjoy reading them. Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

Today is a day that tests our faith. Faith is tested not just by calamities, but by ideas as well. We are here today to celebrate z'man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah, and we have to answer a question that is particularly difficult for those of us who are neither literal in our reading of the account nor dismissive of the origins of the substance of Torah.

Is our focus on the word matan, which means the giving? That is to say, are we concerned with the phenomenon of the revelation? Midrash is filled with discussions of the nature of the experience itself. The actual Sinai event is described in exquisite detail over the course of hundreds of years of commentary. In fact, the revelatory experience is described using the words of Song of Songs (which we read on Pesach, not Shavu'ot). Any number of midrashim has God saying to the people Israel, "Oh my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, hidden by the cliff, let me see your face; let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful." When Israel stood b'tachtit hahar, either at the bottom of the mountain or beneath the mountain, God spoke to them lovingly: Don't hide from me. I know you are there, among the craggy rocks and the outcroppings. Don't be coy with Me - show your face, because I love to look upon it. Open your mouth in word or song, because no matter what comes out, it brings Me great delight.

The "giving" that takes place at Sinai is not just the words. The Torah presented to the people is a sort of betrothal gift from God. The level of God's love for Israel is so high, the strength is so powerful that God needs to give something of God's self at that moment. And the attempts to describe what happened - written by men who looked back at the event across as many years as we look back at their descriptions of it - are almost embarrassing in their intensity.

I won't denigrate the midrashim by comparing them to baser forms of popular literature and entertainment. But I will suggest to you that the rabbis were trying to capture what they could barely imagine but believed to be true, in the same way that you, no matter your age, would look at your parents or grandparents and try to describe the love they had for each other that resulted in you. No matter how uplifting or difficult that story might be, the fact of your presence demands an acceptance of intimacy to which you owe your very existence. Try to describe nature of love, of passion, of coyness and boldness, of reticence and vulnerability that brought your parents or grandparents together. Where is the language that will capture it without embarrassing you, or that will make you as deeply grateful for that hour without polluting your gratitude with prurient imagery?

The wealth of imagination poured into the "giving" emerges from that desire to own a small piece of that love and to underpin the intellectual gratitude that the rabbis had for Torah with a visceral appreciation of what that moment must have been like.

But, of course, for us today - and by "today" I mean right this very minute - the deeply ingrained skepticism we have cultivated and raised to an art form interferes with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the 19th century poet, called the willing suspension of disbelief. The notion that God in any iteration would feel the kinds of emotions we do, let alone act on them, is relegated to metaphor. First, we have to get beyond the very question of believing in God. And then we insist on being very specific about the extent or limit of our beliefs - the mighty hand and outstretched arm, the old man with the long white beard, the dispatcher of angels and commandments, these are notions we refuse to take literally, so we deconstruct them into symbolic ideas. By doing so, we render God impotent in love.

So what are we to do with matan? What are we to do with the giving?

Perhaps we should focus instead on the word torateinu. That word means "our torah." The suffix -einu means "our," and it is used in the descriptions of the other two major festivals: Pesach is z'man cheiruteinu, "the time of OUR freedom," and Sukkot is z'man simchateinu, "the time of OUR joy." Though each of the holidays has universal meaning, the personal names we give to them are particular to our experience as Jews. It is not freedom throughout the ages we celebrate on Pesach or the notion of freedom - we celebrate OUR freedom from slavery. It is not the joy or satisfaction of the harvest of others we celebrate on Sukkot, nor the appreciation they have for the blessings of nature - it is OUR joy in OUR harvest, in OUR little booths open to the elements.

I have to ask first what we mean when we say "torah." The confusion of meanings is pretty well-known. We alternately use the word to mean the scroll that contains the Five Books of Moses, or the Five Books of Moses themselves, or the Bible, or the Bible and the expansion of the Bible in rabbinic literature, or the whole of Jewish learning or, in its generic and minimalist sense - the way it is used in the Torah itself - a set of instructions.

If you think this question is a distraction, then you haven't read the Torah carefully. Exactly what was given to us at Sinai? The text itself seems to suggest it was the Ten Commandments, though we have two versions of those. The section of the Torah that contains those Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus is followed by an expansion of what they are meant to say as explained by Moses. And lest you say that those are Moses' words, not the words of revelation, remember that the Torah itself says that Moses had to recarve the two tablets. Torah itself is confused about what it is.

Yet even if we set aside the multiple meanings of the word "torah," we still have to deal with "our." When we say torateinu, do we mean that the Torah belongs to us? If that's the case, then its appropriation by other religious traditions is a case of copyright infringement, theft of intellectual property or plagiarism. When we say torateinu, do we mean that we have OUR torah, but other people have THEIR torah? In that case, the applicability of the Ten Commandments or whatever else constitutes OUR torah is relevant only to us. When we say torateinu, do we mean that what we have is the record of OUR teaching - not the teaching of God or anyone else? There is a good deal more flexibility if the Torah is just an old book than if it is revealed by God.

And I think that same ingrained skepticism that separates us from our imaginings of God makes us want to understand torateinu as the torah of OUR creation. By understanding it that way, we are free to take liberties with the text, call the inconvenient parts relics of a lost age, dismiss the teachings that trouble us more reflective of a different set of values than we hold today. We are free to talk about reactive legislation, scribal errors, folk medicine, revisionist histories. When the received text we have validates what we want to believe, we give that validation a sacred imprimatur. When it contradicts what we want to believe, we reserve the right to bring it into line.

If you are here this morning it is because you are committed to this orphan festival. It is without the popularity of Pesach and the earthiness of Sukkot. It lacks the sense of gathering of Rosh HaShanah and the urgency of Yom Kippur. It is without the candles and dreidles, without the groggers and masks, without the tears of Yom HaShoah or Tisha B'Av and without the blue and white excitement of Independence Day. It is only - only - z'man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of our torah. And we have to decide what that means.

If we called ourselves Orthodox, neither question would remain. Whether or not we would choose to believe individually, the notion that Torah was given by God to Moses at Sinai would be the presumed truth. If we called ourselves Reform, both questions would be answered. God provided inspiration, not information, and it is up to each person to determine what practices have meaning; it was the prophets, not the rabbis, who were the architects of Reform. If we called ourselves Reconstructionists, neither question would be a question. God and Torah both would be embodiments of Jewish culture, not the source of it.

But we are none of those things, and neither are a whole lot of people who call themselves Orthodox, Reform and Reconstructionist. We yearn to believe that the revelation at Sinai happened as it was described - thunder and lightning, the sound of the shofar waxing and waning, Moses spoke and God answered him in a clear and unambiguous voice. We want Torah to be true, even if we don't want to follow it as it is written or interpreted, because we need a more trustworthy infrastructure than the human race seems to provide for itself.

Today is the best holiday of the year because it is the most profound. There are no magic tricks like frogs and boils. There are no do-it-yourself projects like building a booth or weaving leaves. Other than staying up past your bedtime and eating cheesecake, there aren't any customs to distract us from deep, deep questions: what were we given, who gave it, and what difference does it make?

You want me to give you answers. I can tell you this much. Today, this day, I believe that God gave the whole of Torah to Moses at Sinai. The promise of the moment was remembered for eternity in a maze of knowledge of wisdom that contained sparks of that passionate intimacy. Tomorrow I will believe it a little less, and by next week I will be a skeptic again. But z'man matan torateinu will be waiting for me when a year's time has passed, and I will be sustained by that love and that certainty I feel today through the long wilderness ahead.


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