2016-06-08 / Religion Column

Playing ‘Jewish geography’—we were all together at Sinai

Temple Beth Sholom

Did you ever walk into a meeting at some Jewish organization and encounter somebody you had never met before but who somehow seemed familiar? A quick game of Jewish geography may, of course, lead to the discovery of common acquaintances. For Jews, there are fewer than six degrees of separation; we are a people small in number. But despite those connections, you cannot trace the source of that feeling that you must have met at some time.

The festival of Shavuot offers a solution to the mystery—Sinai.

According to the Talmud, all Jews were present at Sinai for the giving of Torah, which we celebrate on Shavuot. Masekhet Shevu’ot (39a), the Talmud’s tractate about oaths, claims that the covenant was binding upon all Jews who ever were and ever would be, because they were all present at Sinai, including every generation to come and every person who would ever convert to Judaism. In Midrash Tanhuma, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani adds, “Their souls were there, even though their bodies had not yet been created.” We were all there at Sinai.

The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber said: “All of life is encounter.” For Jews, that is particularly true when it comes to Torah.

In Torah, we encounter our past. It’s more than simply a review of history. We meet our ancestors. Every year, we travel with Abraham and Sarah from Ur to Canaan, make our way into Egypt with Joseph, relive the Exodus with Moses, sing at the sea with Miriam, and journey toward the Promised Land with the Wilderness Generation. Every year, at Shavuot, we stand together at Sinai. More: In the commentaries on Torah, we can dialogue about a matter of law with a 3rd century Sage of the Babylonian Talmud, or enter into discussion with Rashi, who lived in France from 1040-1105, or learn with Nehama Leibowitz in Jerusalem.

But the encounter can be much more personal. The Torah contains allusion to Esther, which was my Granny Emma’s Hebrew name. I recall her every year when we read that passage, and we spend a little time together at the Torah. Shmuel is the grandfather for whom I am named but never knew. We meet at Maftir Rosh Hashanah each year. My friend Daryl lives in Oregon, and we’ve seen each other only every 10 years or so, except that I encounter him every year in his Bar Mitzvah Parashah, which comes a couple of weeks after mine, and for a while we are the same 13-year-old friends who rode bikes together to lessons with our cantor. Who do you meet there, at the Torah?

Standing there, you can see the future too. Our children’s children and theirs are present every time we are. So, let’s study with them. Let’s teach them. Let’s provide them with opportunities through which they will relive the encounter at Sinai. Let’s give the great gift of Torah to them, because it is their legacy, as they are ours. Future generations will meet us in Torah.

We can ensure that by supporting all of our community’s programs in Jewish education— our day schools and our synagogue schools, our camps, our youth groups, and our Confirmation Class trips to Israel. We can ensure that being in Shul with our children on Shavuot and standing together for the reading of the Ten Commandments.

Sinai is now and always. Past and future meet in Torah. s

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