Just last week we observed Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, the day on which we celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. We should all feel grateful to be alive at a time in Jewish history when Jerusalem is the unified capital of a strong and independent Jewish state. The miraculous nature of this reality should not be lost on us. If you had told my great-grandparents, living in Eastern Europe around the year 1900, that this would be our reality, I am sure they would not have believed you.
And yet, the holiday of Shavuot should cause us to at least ask the question: What is the center of Jewish life? Is it Jerusalem, important to Jews for thousands of years? Is it Sinai, the place where our tradition understands the greatest revelation from God to the Jewish people took place? Or is it some other place? The answer to this question may shed light on the holiday of Shavuot, and hopefully will cause us to think deeply about this profound holiday, the pilgrimage festival that, for many members of the Jewish community, often does not measure up to its more famous fellow festivals, Sukkot and Passover, in level of observance or even acknowledgment.
Jerusalem, Sinai, or a third location? What is the center of the Jewish people? No one who knows a bit about Jewish tradition, literature, and customs could dispute the importance of Jerusalem to our people throughout history and continuing until the present day. However, as important as Jerusalem is to the Jewish people, our history and traditions, we should not forget that it is Mt. Sinai that was the site of God’s revealing the Torah to ancient Israel. Let’s be honest: Where would we be without Torah? Would the Jewish people even be the Jewish people without the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai?
Not only was Mt. Sinai the location of the revelation of the written Torah, but, according to the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 28:6), it was also source of the Oral Torah as well! As the midrash states, “It was not only the prophets who receive their prophecy from Sinai, but also the sages who arise in each and every generation–each of them received what was his from Sinai.” In other words, our tradition understands Mt. Sinai as being the locus not only of our Biblical tradition, but of rabbinic Judaism, the Judaism that all of us practice and utilize to interpret Judaism for life in 2020. Without Sinai, the Midrash states, there would be no Mishnah, Midrash, Talmud, Mishneh Torah, Shulchan Aruch, etc. Important indeed!
And what about the third possibility I presented–that a third location might be the center of Jewish life? Rather than engage in a debate about which actual city might be extremely important to the Jewish people, I want us to think about this third possibility as a way to transcend boundaries and normal notions of location and city. Here are two thoughts about this notion of transcending boundaries by two very different thinkers. Heinrich Heine (19th century German writer and thinker) stated that Torah is the “portable homeland of the Jews,” and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (Poland, U.S., 20th century) stated “The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans are able to burn.” Taken together, these quotations present a view of Judaism that allows us to survive not only all around the world, but through exile, attempted genocide, and countless expulsions.
Shavuot is the holiday on which we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, and on the first day of the holiday, the centerpiece of the Torah reading is the Ten Commandments. This is exactly the time to acknowledge not only the continuing power of the gift of Torah, but also the incredible gift given to the Jewish people by the fact that my question concerning the center of Jewish life incorrectly assumed that we needed to actually choose one over the other! We don’t have to choose, as our Jewish tradition makes clear. We all face Jerusalem when we pray and we remember Jerusalem in countless ways throughout our lives–words recited, customs enacted, sites revisited again and again because of their centrality to Judaism and the Jewish people.
And…we also hold on to the centrality of Mt. Sinai in our lives as the site of the greatest revelation in our history–not only the written Torah was given there but the Oral Torah as well. Sinai is where our dreams originate and we turn there to seek answers to questions old and new.
And what about that third place, the place that transcends actual boundaries and borders? Yes, Judaism is portable and we can take our customs and traditions with us wherever we go. Enjoying Jewish traditions and customs all over the world, whether it is celebrating Shabbat and holidays in new places, eating kosher food with new friends, enjoying being a guest in a new community—Judaism is truly global.
Bringing it all together, Jerusalem, Sinai, and a portable Torah are all given to us as an inheritance. Let us all take this moment of the holiday of Shavuot to celebrate our inheritance and to commit ourselves to devote time and effort to understanding it, living it, and learning more about it in the days and months to come.
Hag Sameach everyone — I hope everyone has a wonderful holiday of Shavuot.