Distinguishing Between What Is Real And Enduring and What Is Not

The Union for Reform Judaism’s Shabbat Manual contains one of my favorite prayers:

“Help us, O God, to distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain!”

Parashat Va-ethanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) Contains both the Sh’ma and the deuteronomic reiteration of the Ten Commandments, two of the most “real and enduring” gifts of our people to human thought. The portion also emphasizes God’s solemn warning to the people as they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai: Do not make a sculptured image or any material form as an object of worship but seek to do the will of the invisible God with all your heart and soul. (DT 4:29)

Many years ago I heard Eli Wiesel quote the famous passage from Pirke Avot (3:1 in the name of Akavaya ben Mehallelel) “Know from where you came, where you are going, and before whom you are destined to give account.”

“Now, which of these,” Wiesel asked rhetorically, “is the most important? The most important,” he asserted, “is ‘from where you came!’

Every Jew should always remember that he/she came from Sinai.”

Our tradition teaches that all unborn generations of our people stood with our ancestors at the foot of that mountain. There they heard God command us not to worship things that we can see and touch.

How vital and how unheeded that lesson remains! So many of us make money and fame our gods. We measure our success by our salaries and press clippings. We worship the athletes and entertainers who make mega millions. We covet the lifestyles of CEOs who make in an hour what minimum wage earners take home in a year!  This is the idolatry the Torah condemns.

In our worship of material things we ignore the immense debt we to the Almighty.        

Before God intervened, we were lost in a world of oppression and meaningless drudgery. We worked unceasingly to build store cities and pyramids to the glory of the Egyptian pharaoh-god. Day after day we endured the same mind-numbing routine.

 But God went to war with pharaoh to get us out of there! In so doing the Eternal One gave us the possibility of a life of purpose and meaning. Redeemed from service to Pharaoh, we pledged to serve God by working to replace the hatred and violence in this world with Tzedakah, Mishpat, and chesed, righteousness, justice and lovingkindness.

When I think of the debt we owe God for redeeming us from Egypt, I think of a small child, who somehow wandered out into the street. The mother looks up to see a truck speeding toward her little one, and she realizes with horror that she cannot save the child herself. At the very last second a person runs into the street, swoops up her child and rolls to the other side, just in time to avoid the truck. Clearly, there is nothing the mother can do to adequately repay the one who saved her child.

That is the debt we owe the Eternal One for pulling us – just in time – out of “the iron blast furnace” of Egypt! (DT 4:20)  We can never fully recompense the Eternal One for bringing us from Egypt to Sinai, but we should try unceasingly to do so.

At Sinai we renewed with our invisible, untouchable and in many ways unfathomable God the Covenant that God first made with Abraham and Sarah.

In exchange for our freedom, a meaningful Jewish future and the Promised Land, we pledged to use our talents and abilities to seek meaning and purpose in our lives beyond our own success. It is a Covenant that requires us to “distinguish between that which is real and enduring and that which is fleeting and vain!”


Four Versions of What Happened at Sinai

Shavuot is less than two weeks away! Shavuot (see prior post: Shavuot: A Perfect Example of Ancient Reform Judaism) commemorates the pivotal moment when God revealed Torah on Mount Sinai. So unique in history did the Sages of our people envision the event at Sinai that they imagined the whole world coming to a complete silent standstill. In the words of the Midrash:

When God gave the Torah, no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox grunted…the sea did not roar … the whole world hushed in breathless silence, and the Divine voice went forth proclaiming (Exodus 20:2): “I am the Lord your God; who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Shemot Rabbah 29:9)

What makes this moment so unique? At Sinai the Covenant God made first with Abraham alone became the privilege and sacred responsibility of the entire Jewish people, past, present and future.

What actually took place at Sinai? It should surprise no one that our Sages fertile minds produced a number differing Midrashim. Here are four:

In one God offers Torah to all the nations of the world. But when they hear what it says –Don’t cheat, don’t steal, treat the stranger the widow, the orphan and the poor with special dignity and respect – they all reject it out of hand. (See Sefer Ha-Agadah (Bialik and Rovenitzky, editors, vol. 1, p. 59).

Another Midrash, that I like to call The Godfather Midrash, has God lift Mount Sinai and hold it over the heads of the assembled Children of Israel. Then God says, either you accept and pledge to observe my Torah or I shall drop the mountain on top of you. (B. Shabbat 88A and B. Avodah Zarah 2B)

This Midrash teaches us the vital lesson that our only purpose as a people is to be teachers and examples of the ideals of Torah to the world. Indeed by adherence to these ideals we become in the words of the Prophet Isaiah; “A light to the nations’ (Isaiah 49:6) a worthy example for all. If we are not willing to accept the responsibility of adhering to the Torah’s ideals, there is no good reason for us to continue to exist.

A third Midrash that states that Israel’s willingness to accept Torah was so important to God that the Almighty threatened to break the promise made after the flood never to destroy the world again unless Israel agrees to embrace the Torah and its ideals (B. Shabbat 88A).

A fourth Midrash stresses the importance of passing the ideal of Torah to future generations. In this one the question is not, are we willing to accept the Torah? It is rather, how will we demonstrate to God that we are worthy to receive it? When God asks us to offer guarantors of our worthiness, we offer the deeds of our patriarchs and our prophets but God finds neither of these acceptable. Only when we pledge the loyalty of our children to God’s teachings does God reveal the Torah to our people. (Shir Ha Shirim Rabbah, Chapter 1, Section 4, Midrash 1)

The rabbinic method of interpretation encouraged creative thought. There was rarely only one acceptable point of view on any question. Indeed there are no fewer than four different rabbinic versions of how the greatest moment in our religious history came to be. Each one, though, stress our privilege and responsibility to study Torah and pass its teachings on to the next generation.