A Shavuot wish
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A Shavuot wish

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We all stood at Sinai. We all heard God’s word. Of this, the Torah is clear.

“The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb [Sinai]. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today.” (See Deuteronomy 5:2-3.)

Moses spoke these words 40 years after the great revelation at Sinai to people who were not alive at the time. His point was simple: When God spoke at Sinai, he was heard by all the generations of Israel.

God’s word was never meant to be beyond our individual abilities to understand it for ourselves or appreciate its place in our lives. The Torah makes this clear, as well, when it tells us that the Torah “is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?'” Rather, the law “is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” (See Deuteronomy 30:11-14.)

Keeping the faith – One religious perspective on issues of the day The Torah also insisted that the law had to be kept simple to remain accessible to everyone. Thus, “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it….” (See Deuteronomy 4:1-2.)

Did that mean that the law could never change? It was given at a specific time and place to a specific people at a specific stage in its development and with its simplistic, even pagan, understanding of God. Was the law to be stuck in that time, that place, and that understanding?

No, says the Torah. “See,” says Moses, “I have imparted to you laws and rules, as the Lord my God has commanded me….Observe them faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.'” (See Deuteronomy 4:5-6.)

This sounds strange. The laws come from God, yet our observance of them demonstrates “our wisdom and discernment.” How could following blindly what we are told make us “a wise and discerning people”?

The answer rests in how we approach the law in the first place. It is not a fixed thing, set in stone. It is ever-changing, ever-evolving, meant to remain fresh and vibrant through the ages. We all stood at Sinai. We all heard the word of God. That word remains constant and unchanging. On the other hand, how we translate that word into our lives and communities is how we demonstrate our wisdom and understanding.

It is easy, of course, for Moses to say that the law is not in heaven and that nothing be added or subtracted from it. For the law to be the living organism the Torah envisions, however, requires adding and subtracting. It also requires people learned in the law who are capable of making decisions about what is consistent with the original intent of the Torah. For the average person, then, the Torah may as well be in heaven.

It is for this reason that, for at least the last two millennia and almost certainly beginning at Sinai itself, there have always been those whose sacred task it is to study Torah and interpret the law for their time and their place. They are the teachers of the Oral Law, the law that stands beside the written one and, in almost every way, is superior to it in authority.

The Judaism we follow, after all, is Rabbinic Judaism, not biblical. The teachers of the Oral Law, the sages of blessed memory, made no effort to conceal this.

“When Moses ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing [jots and tittles] to [adorn] the letters [of the Torah]. Said Moses, ‘Lord of the Universe, what keeps You [from giving me the Torah unadorned]?’ He answered, ‘Many generations from now there will arise a man – he will be known by the name Akiva ben Yosef – who will heap mountains of laws upon each [jot and] tittle.” (See Babylonian Talmud tractate M’nachot 29b.)

This midrash continues with Moses being taken to one of Rabbi Akiva’s lectures and being unable to follow what the great sage was teaching.

Obviously, the “interpreters of the law” are the true lawgivers, according to this – and they did not always agree with one another, as witness two of the earliest (and arguably greatest) of the sages, Hillel and Shammai. They and the schools that emanated from them had many disputes. And yet, although one would say black and the other white, from heaven itself came the declaration, “The utterances of this one and this one are both the words of the living God.” (See BT Eruvin 13b.)

We all stood at Sinai. We all heard God’s word.

We simply did not all hear that word the same way.

We have always had our Hillels and Shammais, our Rabbi Yishmaels and Rabbi Akivas, our Rabbi Moshe Feinsteins and our Rabbi J.B. Soloveichiks. We worked out some disputes and accepted that others could not be settled.

We should have understood that if the law was to be a living, breathing law, it would have to accommodate contrary views, so long as those views were determined “in the name of heaven.” We should have understood that, but we have not.

How else can we explain that there is little interaction between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox streams of Judaism? How can we explain the contempt that many of us – non-Orthodox and modern Orthodox – demonstrate toward haredi customs and dress? Indeed, how can we explain why a greeting of “Shabbat Shalom” on a Teaneck street will go unanswered because it was not “good Shabbes” (“Shabbat Shalom” being a clue that the greeter is not Orthodox)?

When the heavenly voice proclaimed that both the Hillel and Shammai schools spoke the word of God, it added that we follow the Hillel school. The Talmud then asked why.

“Because,” it answered, “they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of the School of Shammai and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of the School of Shammai before theirs…. This teaches you that he who humbles himself, the Holy One, blessed be He, raises up, and he who exalts himself, the Holy One, blessed be He, humbles….”

We all stood before Sinai. It is long overdue that we acted like it.

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