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Shavuot I 5783      May 26, 2023

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Hag Sameach.

Today marks the birthday of the Torah. That is why we read the Ten Commandments this morning. This is why we read about the revelation at Mt. Sinai. This is the anniversary of that event. It is the day we celebrate the Torah being transferred from the heavenly realms to guide our paths here on earth. This is the day that we discovered what God wanted from humanity. It marks the day that the infinite touched the finite, and the world has never been the same since.

But if we are honest with each other, and there is no reason not to be honest for honesty is a value that comes to us through the Torah; if we are honest, when it is NOT the birthday of the Torah, we really don’t think very much about the Torah at all. Perhaps if we come to synagogue on Shabbat or holidays, we celebrate the Torah by parading it around the sanctuary and giving everyone a chance to kiss and honor the Torah scrolls. We pause our services to read words from the Torah scroll and try, over the course of a year or two or three, to read all of its words. But that is only if we are in synagogue. On other days, the scrolls sit unused in the ark, and nobody pauses to ponder its message.

The word “Torah” means “teaching.” It is a tradition to read the Torah from a handwritten scroll, written in the same manner for more than a thousand years. Maybe more. The oldest scrolls we have are called the “Dead Sea Scrolls” because they were found in caves around the Dead Sea. There are references about the Torah that go back to the fifth century BCE when we believe that it came to be in the form that we know it to be today. But the real essence of Torah, is not about the scroll at all. Torah is more than ink on parchment. Torah is the ideals and values and teachings that God gave to us to build a world where all life is considered sacred. God creates a world where human beings are violent to each other and to all of nature. The Torah is our guide to end the violence and bring about a world where all life is at peace with each other. This is why we should consider Torah, even when we are not in this room. Every day, every moment, is an opportunity to live the words of Torah and bring the world just one small step closer to perfection.

Over the last year or so, there has been a drama on streaming television called “Succession.” It was about an elderly successful businessman who has to choose who will take over the business when he is gone. I didn’t watch it. I don’t need to be entertained by people scheming and plotting to get an advantage over their rivals. But it did ask an interesting question; how do we decide who is worthy to be a leader of society? What are the qualities that we should look for that will give us the sign that this person is a person of integrity, honesty, and one who looks out for the welfare of others?

There is a story of a chief of a Native American tribe who was unsure which of his three sons should succeed him as the leader of the tribe. Knowing that this was a critical decision, the old chief devised a test that would indicate the leadership abilities of his sons. He had all three of his sons climb a nearby mountain and spend a week in solitude. Then they should return bringing a gift, something of value, back to their father.

After a week on the mountain, the three sons returned. The first son brought his father a beautiful flower that he had found growing near the summit of the mountain. The old chief admired the flower, but he said very little about it. The second son brought his father a gemstone, a stone that had been polished smooth by the rain and the wind. Again, the old chief admired the gift, but he was mute in his response. The third son returned empty handed to his father. When he was questioned about this the third son replied, “As I sat on the mountain all I noticed was that the valley beyond the mountain was green and well-watered. I figured that the forest there was filled with game. I made a note to myself that if I were to become chief of our tribe, I might want to move out campsite to the other side of the mountain and there we could live a good life.”

The old chief smiled and said to his son, “You have returned with a very special gift, the gift of vision. You are the one most qualified to lead our people after I am gone.”

Many people read the Bible. They want to know what the bible says about the many facets of life. Jews do not just read the Torah, we study it. A Jewish Bible always contains a commentary, an understanding of how others have viewed this text. In Judaism, Torah is less about what it says and more about how it is to be understood. Generation after generation have added their comments and understanding to the words of Torah. I like to call the study of Torah the longest running classroom discussion in the history of the world. But it is in these commentaries that the words of Torah stay alive. The discussions of sages and students keep Torah from becoming obsolete and ancient. It is ever evolving, it is ever growing, it is always teaching us how we should live our lives today. It is an ancient book that still has something to say to us after three millennia.

There are many people who think that they have discovered the hidden treasure of the Torah. But the real treasure is not something we can discover by just reading the words. Torah is a vision, a vision of the future. It directs us to the Garden of Eden, the place from which we are exiled, and it shows us how we can find our way back. It is the guide to finding the Promised Land not by giving us a map of the terrain between here and there, but by showing us how we can bring that promised place here to our own community and into our own hearts. Great leaders understand that the promise of Torah, the promise of the Bible, is that there will come a day when humanity will inherit the reward that God offers us in these words that we celebrate today.

We can see this kind of leadership in the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in the last speech he gave in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, the night before he was murdered. This is how he began and ended his speech that night: Something is happening in Memphis, something is happening in our world. And you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time with the possibility of taking a kind of general and panoramic view of the whole of human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, "Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?" I would take my mental flight by Egypt, and I would watch God's children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt through-or rather across-the Red Sea through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land, and in spite of its magnificence I wouldn't stop there. I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mt. Olympus, and I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides, and Aristophanes assemble around the Parthenon, and I would watch them around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality, but I wouldn't stop there. I would come on up even to 1863, and watch a vacillating President by the name of Abraham Lincoln finally come to the conclusion that he had to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, but I wouldn't stop there. I would even come up to the early 'thirties, and see a man grappling with the problems of the bankruptcy of his nation, and come with an eloquent cry that "We have nothing to fear but fear itself," but I wouldn't stop there. Strangely enough I would turn to the Almighty and say, "If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the Twentieth Century, I will be happy."

Now that's a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up, the nation is sick, trouble is in the land, confusion all around. That's a strange statement. But I know somehow that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. Something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up, and wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee, the cry is always the same: "We want to be free!"

 Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will, and He's allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over and I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So, I'm happy tonight, I'm not worried about anything, I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Torah was given on Mt. Sinai to a people who had won their freedom from Egypt. For thousands of years it has delivered God’s words to people who were oppressed, enslaved, and subjugated. It has given hope to those in pain, showed stars to those in darkness and it has been our teacher to guide us to the Promised Land. It is true that some people have tried to twist its words to validate their evil, but in the end the truth, the values and the peace promised by our Torah have always guided us on in life. Torah teaches us what is right and good. Torah will always lead us forward. The Torah that we celebrate today is our ever-flowing source of hope.

From the top of Mt. Sinai, Moses had the vision to lead our people forward even when they wanted to retreat. From the top of Mt. Nebo, Moses had a vision of the Promised Land. A vision that was less about our people entering their inheritance, but the historical view of the march of humanity toward Justice and peace.

Torah is not about the leadership of Moses or Aaron, or Washington or Lincoln or even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Torah helps us see the leadership in all of us, in our ancestors and in ourselves. If we can share the vision of Torah, the vision passed on to us by the wise elders of previous generations, then we too will share that vision of the well-watered forest, the Garden of Eden, the Promised Land, and with words of Torah guide our children to the other side of the mountain.

Today we celebrate the revelation of the Torah by God to human beings. Every day we are responsible to carry it forward, like those of past generations, until all people are blessed with the Torah’s promise of Life, Hope, Justice, Freedom, and Peace. May God be with us as we carry God’s words into the future as we say … Amen and Hag Sameach.

Mon, February 26 2024 17 Adar I 5784