Sinai for Beginners


Pesach is an easy Jewish festival to love.  The Seder takes place around food, family and friends.  In the Seder’s telling of the devastation of slavery and the forces that enable liberation and freedom, its themes are potent and easily translatable from the ancient narrative to contemporary issues. Its rituals are tangible and accessible – eating, drinking, and expounding on a shared story. While there are ever-deeper layers of interpretation and meaning available for each symbolic food and ritual act, the Seder is widely accessible for cultural and spiritual Jews, atheists and social activists, and there is abundant room for non-Jewish partners, family, and friends to connect personally and as part of the collective rituals.

Shavuot is another story. Shavuot (which means weeks), is celebrated exactly seven weeks after Pesach, tying the meaning of liberation directly with the moment the Israelites stand at the foot of Mount Sinai as a free people and receive the Torah.  For cultural, atheist, and even non-traditional Jews who don’t relate to the Torah as the word of God (which, by the way, I also don’t), finding our way to an accessible, relevant, and important relationship with Torah may not be as obvious.  So what can Torah mean for us?

This famous Talmudic story of two great Jewish leaders from the first century BCE offers some insight:

“A certain Gentile came before Shammai and said to him, “I will convert if you teach me the entire Torah while I stand on one foot.” Shammai pushed him away with the measuring stick that was in his hand. The Gentile then went to Hillel, who helped him to convert. Hillel told him, “Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study.”

In the story, whether the Gentile is being provocative and arrogant or sincere, s/he is asking for a distillation of the essence of Torah.  What is the foundation of all of Jewish teaching?  Shammai is outraged by the question, by the request to reduce a complex, multifaceted tradition down to a bumper sticker slogan.  Hillel, on the other hand, gives the Gentile a way in.  If you want to know the root of Torah, know how to treat other people. Interestingly, Hillel doesn’t quote directly from the Torah itself, teaching “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).  Instead, he offers an even less demanding foundation for interpersonal ethical behaviour and care.  You don’t begin by loving people or overthrowing systems of oppression or healing conflict.  The starting point, the essence of Torah, entails developing enough self-awareness to refrain from causing harm.  As the wise teacher he was, Hillel doesn’t merely teach this as the foundation of all Torah, but he enacts it by treating the Gentile with respect, engaging her/him seriously and building relationship on the Gentile’s terms.

Hillel has given us the Golden Rule, present in religious traditions around the world.  Beginning here, receiving Torah on Shavuot is a renewed commitment and covenant with our fellow human beings not to harm one another.  That is certainly no small commitment, but it is accessible, universally important, and the foundation of moral society.

But if the Golden Rule is common to all religions, why do we need Torah?  Hillel’s teaching doesn’t end there.  The second half of his statement is as important as the first.  “The rest is commentary.  Go and learn!”  From this broad general principle, now we get down to specifics.  What do I need to learn and practice in order to not act hatefully or harmfully?  What if my standards of what is hateful to me are pretty low and rough?  How do I apply this basic teaching in my relationships with my parents or children?  How do I live this teaching when I am angry or have been wronged?  What are important considerations when applying it to business interactions, in the face of conflict, or when deciding what causes to support?

Welcome to the universe of Jewish commentary, to the generations of Sages reflecting and grappling, wedding ideals and values with the stuff of daily life.  Welcome to the universe of teachings that aim to sharpen the mind and widen the heart, to challenge our habits and reactions, and help us discern wise questions and insightful responses.  Welcome to Judaism’s love affair with Torah, with the on-going project of Jewish learning as a cultural, spiritual, ethical, devotional, artistic, communal engagement.  Welcome to Mt. Sinai!

Learning Torah doesn’t require belief in God or commitment to traditional practice.  The commentaries of Torah learning include lenses that are feminist, queer, ethical, devotional, literary, and philosophical.  You don’t have to be Jewish to learn Torah, and there is no single outcome or conclusion from the process of learning.  Our Sages model that well in their heated debates and disagreements.  Learning gives us a shared language, a buzzing set of questions and issues to consider in thinking, debating, and exploring our way to answers.  All of Jewish life stems from Torah.  Leaving Egypt is the beginning of freedom.  Receiving Torah is a learning contract we make as we discern how to live that freedom.

Shavuot is as relevant and accessible as Pesach and is its essential second half.  It also doesn’t hurt that it’s customary to eat cheese blintzes and cheesecake on Shavuot!  So grab your Lactaid and let’s meet at the mountain.

Shavuot begins at sundown on Saturday, May 23rd.  Join the DJC for upcoming opportunities to stand at Mt. Sinai together:

Shavuot Arts & Text Workshop

MNJCC Tikkun Leil Shavuot:  Night of Jewish Learning – Hundreds of participants will take part in a wide range of learning sessions at this all night learning celebration.  Come for part or for all of the night.  Rabbi Miriam will be teaching at 1:00 am!

And be sure to join us for the DJC B’nai Mitzvah Ceremony – Saturday May 23rd at 9:30 am – when we honour and celebrate this important life event for eleven of our young people as they embark on the next stage of their Jewish lives


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