We are here this morning to celebrate a very special anniversary, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah by God to the Jewish People on Mt. Sinai shortly after the Exodus from Egypt. We talk endlessly about God freeing us from Egyptian slavery, but there is a second part to that redemption. God freed us from Egypt so we could SERVE God. We were not to tolerate having a human master but we should see ourselves as servants of God.
The Torah then is the contract between God and Israel. It is the terms of our service. That is why Torah is so important in our faith. It is a record of what God expects from us and what we can expect from God in return. The essence of our contract is what we read this morning from the Torah, the 10 sayings, the 10 laws, the Ten Commandments.
Now, like any contract, we wonder how much of the contract applies to us. After all, we were not personally at Sinai at this time of the year. WE never agreed to these terms. Our ancestors certainly made a pact with God but does that pact apply to us in our generation? Is there an escape clause from this contract? Is there an expiration date after which it no longer applies? Before we agree to this contract, perhaps we need to consult our lawyer?
Our ancestors accepted this compact between God and our people out of gratitude for being released from Egyptian bondage. They were so grateful for their liberation, they were so grateful to God that they bound our people for all generations for eternity. A Jew by choice may have to make a verbal agreement to follow Torah, but those of us born Jews, we are bound to the Torah from the oath our ancestors made as recorded in the Torah reading for this morning.
And yet, Rabbis of every generation have taught us that we should see ourselves at this time of year as receiving for ourselves the Torah from God. We should not consider this as a historical event but one that is happening every day, in real time. Just as on Pesach, we have to consider ourselves as being liberated from Egypt, so too, on this day, we have to consider ourselves as having accepted the Torah, not our ancestors. The author of the Netivot Shalom, a Hasidic text from the nineteenth century is just one example as he writes, “In addition to marking an essential event and defining moment in the history of the Jewish people, Shavuot is also a time in the year when we receive the Torah again as individuals and as a nation.” So, what are we being asked to do this day to accept the Torah and its commandments into our lives?
Rabbi Zvi Herschfield, an educator for the Ayeka yeshiva in Israel explains that there are three elements that we need to consider when we contemplate bringing Torah into our lives. “First”, Hirschfield writes, “The Sages taught that the reason the Torah was given in the desert is because the desert is ownerless. This teaches us that a person must make himself (or herself) “hefker/Ownerless” in order to receive the Torah in the deepest and most authentic way. What does it mean for me to be ownerless? For me, it means that I must free myself from all the judgements and expectations that often rule my decisions that determine my way of being in the world. Am I owned by my desire to please and impress others, feel successful, fears of change and failure, or loss of hope and optimism in the existence of a better self and world? Do the relentless demand of ego and survival instinct determine who I am? If I am to receive the Torah, I must work to free myself from these “owners” and open myself to the possibility of encountering Torah with an open, trusting and honest self.”
According to Hirschfield, what prevents us from receiving the Torah are all the expectations that are heaped upon us by others. We think that we can’t live by Torah because others depend on us. We can’t keep kosher, we can’t observe Shabbat, we can’t pray regularly because we have responsibilities to other people. People we love, our spouse, our children, or grandchildren, expect us to be there when they need us without any regard to our needs and desires. Our Boss at work demands our time and we can’t ask for consideration in return. These are just indications that we are serving other masters besides God. Why can’t we ask our family to meet us in shul so we can pray together as a family? Why are our needs less than anyone else’s needs? Torah is asking us to stand up for ourselves, so we can grow into a better human being. It may be inconvenient for others if we choose to receive Torah, but it could be better for everyone if we are true first to ourselves. Nobody owns us or our time; we are the masters of our fate when we turn our lives over to God.
Hirschfield goes on to give a second challenge to accepting Torah. He writes, “The Midrash teaches that the entire Jewish people were prepared to receive the Torah as a single nation with a single heart. Torah was not given to individuals. It is a gift for the entire people as a people. Am I open to feeling fully connected to the Jewish people even as this connection sometimes challenges my individuality and personal freedom? Can I attach myself to the Jewish people even in the face of the endless disagreements between factions and movements that seem to make one heart an impossible goal? Can I appreciate these differences and challenges without feeling threatened by them?
This is certainly not a new problem. In the time of the Talmud, Rabbis noted that there were people who said, “One Rabbi says that something must be done one way and another Rabbi says it must be done a different way. How can I keep Torah if everyone can’t agree? The Sages answer that just as a hammer strikes a rock and sparks fly in every direction, so too there are many different ways to follow Torah.” Torah is not about finding the one truth in the world, but it is seeing the many truths that are possible without dealing in falsehoods. Someone who does something differently is not better than I am nor worse than I am. They are only different and they too deserve my understanding and tolerance even if I disagree.
Finally, Hirschfield tells us the third challenge to accepting the Torah. “The reception of the Torah was the beginning of a process not the culmination. Torah must be studied, interpreted, and applied to our lives. This is the heart of the Oral Torah. A Torah that the Jewish people are responsible for creating and transmitting in every generation. We renew our reception of Torah by receiving it through the lens of our life experiences and wisdom.”
Opening ourselves to Torah and understanding the different interpretations are not enough. We have to add our own understanding to Torah as well. We have to bring ourselves to the Torah. We have to bring all that we know and add it to the collective wisdom of our people. We accept the Torah and it has to accept us. We create our own moment at Sinai when we apply our life’s understanding to what we are about to receive. Torah was not given for just one generation, nor was it written in one text for all time. Torah lives when we bring its words into our lives and add our words to what Torah is teaching.
This then is the ongoing challenge of what it means to receive the Torah every day of our lives. Can we be ownerless enough to see Torah with our own eyes and not through the eyes and needs of others? Can we receive Torah for ourselves and let others find their own path to Torah? Can we bring what we know from our life, and add our experience to the words we read and teach. Torah is not just one scroll that was given at one particular time in history. Torah is given in many ways at every moment. This Shavuot is our reminder that it is never too late to hear God calling us and it is never too late for us to respond and to receive Torah in our own lives today.
May God be with us as God was with our ancestors at this time of year. May we be blessed to hear the voice of God calling us and may we be open to hearing that call and adding our own voice to our ancient teachings. May we accept Torah with the same faith as our ancestors … As we say… Amen and Hag Sameach.
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Wednesday, May 31, 2017.