First Day of Shavuot 2010

Hag Sameach

Today is the Birthday of the Torah. Every time I say that I kind of cringe inside. Judaism does not really celebrate birthdays. Beginnings are important, but there really is not ritual in Judaism to celebrate a birthday. I guess our first clue should be that the Hebrew birthday song is just a poor translation of the English birthday song. Even the idea of having a cake on a birthday is considered in some Jewish circles, a pagan act. No, we Jews are not big on birthdays.

We don’t know the day that any famous Jews were born because we just don’t care what day they were born. We commemorate the day that they died. We honor them for the books they wrote and the ideas they shared. But on the day of their birth, they were like all the other people of the world, full of potential but short on impressive deeds. It will be years before a person’s true nature will develop and be revealed. So what is the sense in celebrating the day of birth?

This applies all the more so when it comes to Torah. Torah was not “born” on this day. This is only the day that we human beings received the Torah from God. God had the Torah before the beginning of time. Before there was a world, God had Torah and Torah was used as a blueprint when God set out to create the universe. Before there was day and night, before there was earth and sea, before there was a sun or moon, before there was any concept of time at all, there was Torah. So how can Torah have a birthday? Today is just the day, after thousands of years, perhaps millions of years (remember there really is no way to know how “old” Torah is) that human beings received the Torah and from that moment on, the history of Western Civilization was born. So “Happy Birthday Israelite people, Judaism and Western Civilization.

The Sages of the Talmud taught us that the Torah begins with Creation because there are parallels between these two momentous events. The revelation of Torah at Sinai is a parallel event to the creation of the universe. The similarities are striking. Both Torah and Creation are the handiwork of God. Both are given to human beings to guide their lives and both are created with ten divine sayings. I talked about this last Shabbat when I noted that each of the ten commandments has a parallel passage from the Creation story. God spoke at Sinai and at Creation a total of ten times.

If we look at Revelation and Creation in a more mystical way, we see the similarities clearly. Creation starts with God, and immediately from the oneness of God comes the duality of our world; light and darkness, earth and sky, ocean and dry land, birds and fishes, animals and humans, female and male. We live in a dualistic world, everything seems to have its opposite. There is only one unity, one unbreakable unity, and that is God. Everything else has a right and a left, an up and a down, an open or a closed, or a front and a back.

Torah also begins with one God. The first commandment clearly teaches that there is only one God in the universe; no more and no less. While the creation story begins with the letter “bet” which represents the number two, revelation begins with the letter “aleph” which represents the number one. Only after the unity of God is revealed, do we begin to see the duality of the law. There are positive and negative commandments. There are distinctions between the holy and the secular. There are things which are Tahore/pure and things which are Tameh/impure from a ritual point of view. And most of all, the Torah makes a great distinction between God and humanity. God appears on Mt. Sinai and the people remain below, separated by duality that makes up human existence.

The lens of Creation is but one way of looking at the Revelation of the Torah. There is another way to look at Torah and it is found in our Haftara for today. The prophet Ezekiel has a vision while he is among the captive Jews in Babylonia. It is a vision so steeped in the mystical that it spawned its own mystical genre, Merkava mysticism, the mystic story of the “Chariot”. This is a very different revelation from the one at Mt. Sinai. God met the people of Israel at Sinai. In Babylonia, Ezekiel meets God as God departs the doomed city of Jerusalem. God traveled that day by chariot, a very strange chariot. First of all it had two wheels, each one set with another wheel inside of it. This wheel allowed the chariot to move in any direction. This chariot was pulled by four strange creatures that had four faces in its head, each face pointing in a different direction. There was a human head, a lion head, an eagle head and the face of an ox. Each creature had six wings and they could pull the chariot in any direction without strings; they obey instantly the thoughts and commands of God. This chariot could take God anywhere that God wanted to go, and that day, in that vision, God was seen leaving Jerusalem, dooming the city to conquest and exile.

We have two stories of Divine revelation. The first is when God arrives to meet the Israelites, the other when he leaves Jerusalem just before its fall. We read both of these today, on this first day of Shavuot. What is the connection? What is the deeper meaning of these stories of revelation?

The first thing we can learn is that Torah is not static. Torah is constantly moving. God is either arriving or departing, but either way, Torah remains with us. Take one example from our Humash, from the first five books of the Bible. Almost every chapter and every verse has something to teach us about how our ancestors moved from slavery to freedom. Every moment of triumph, every bump in the road is recounted with loving detail except for one item. We see our ancestors go down to Egypt as a family and grow there to become a great nation. We see the signs and wonders that forced the Egyptian Pharaoh and his army to capitulate before God. We see our ancestors leave the slave pits of Egypt and arrive at Sinai to meet God. We see them wander in the desert for forty years until it is time to enter the Promised Land. The only thing missing from the story is the arrival of our ancestors at their destination. Moses dies and is buried in the wilderness and the people mourn his death. But the Torah ends without the Israelites entering the land God promised them.

The lesson here is that Torah is not a destination, Torah is a journey. Torah is not about finding final answers, but in discovering God as we travel our path in life. The law that the Torah establishes from the first meeting at Sinai is called, “Halacha” “the Path”. Torah represents the signposts that we find along the way to help us navigate all the difficulties and tribulations of life.

There is no one path that the Torah offers us. There is not just one way. There are many ways and we travel them sometimes all at once. There is the way of translation, to read and study the words of Torah so we understand the stories it contains. This is a meaningful journey but it only scratches the surface of what the Torah can teach us. There is the path of Drash, the path of stories within the stories, the Midrashim the Sages used to fill in the gaps in the story of the Torah. Who are the people of the long genealogical lists of Genesis? Why did Joseph’s brothers hate him? What did Moses do as a child? What happened on Mt. Sinai that delayed Moses’ return to the people? Here we add a deeper meaning to the lessons of the text.

Then there are the things that the Torah only hints at. What kind of work is forbidden on Shabbat? There is a hint of this as our ancestors prepared to build the Mishkan in the wilderness. There are many married people in the Torah but there is not much to tell us what a marriage ceremony would look like, we only find hints of the ceremony in the Torah. Even some of the laws of Kashrut are only hinted about in the text.

Finally there are the secret meanings of the Torah. Those found in the Zohar and other mystical texts that uncover ideas about God, holiness and humanity. How can we aspire to dwell close to the divine? The answers are found in some of the deepest secrets of the Torah. In the end, it does not matter if one journeys on the path of plain meaning, Midrash, Hints or the secret meanings, all paths eventually lead us to God. It is not the results that are important, it is the journey we take to get there. We don’t need to read the text fast or slow. We don’t have to make sure that we have mastered every word. It is not about what we read nor about how long we ponder. Words and watches have no power here. It is not the results, but the experience of Torah where real Torah can be found.

Today we remember that all of creation came to be because of Torah. Today we remember that we began a journey on Mt. Sinai. We started what has turned out to be the longest classroom discussion in the history of humanity. A discussion that will never end because as long we have questions, Torah will be there to help us on our journey. Every moment of life has significance and holiness, if only we look to Torah, to our history, our literature and our Sages to help us recognize how God can be found all around us. Shavuot does not celebrate the beginning or the end of our studies, but it celebrates our journey through life, our journey through the world and our eternal search for God. From the beginning of time, it has been this search that has given our lives purpose and meaning.

Let us celebrate Torah today and every day. And may God always bless our studies with so that it brings us joy and fulfillment.

Amen and Hag Sameach

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