Sermon Parshat Yitro 5779
Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona
January 25, 2019
Mountains play a major role in our lives here in Tucson, Arizona. They literally surround us and they are beautiful, of course, a constant, powerful reminder of the incredible natural world God has created. Living among them as we do, we do well to take a moment to notice that they are quite wonderful. It is traditional on seeing such magnificent reminders of the natural world to say the prayer thanking God for the beauties of the earth we have the privilege to live in: Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reisheet—Blessed are You, God, Ruler of the Universe, who does the great work of Creation. I’ll say a little more about mountains in a moment.
I must tell you that this particular Shabbat reminds us that there is something sacred about a kehillah, a congregation gathered together in Jewish prayer. Synagogues are a unique affirmation of community, and true community has unfortunately become an unusual occurrence in our American society these days. Perhaps because we seem to have become such a fractious, polarized country—even our government has been, for the past month, semi-permanently closed—it is more necessary than ever to gather across all boundary lines and join in prayer, song, study and community. When we participate together in services, work together to improve the justice of our society through social action, study Torah and strive to create a shul that teaches and inspires our children and challenges us to live to our highest ideals, we are doing a kind of holy work that defies easy categorization. It is hard to explain precisely what we mean by Jewish community—but we know that it is extraordinarily important.
And we also know that it is just what we Jews have been doing for over two thousand years, and why we have been able to continue as an eternal people. It is what has allowed us not only to survive but thrive, evolve and grow everywhere and anywhere in the world.
Every synagogue, every Jewish community is different, of course. Yet there is a common denominator for every one. And that is, in a way, what our Torah portion addresses this week. For it was at a great mountain that we were first committed to the covenant of community, the agreement with God that our peoplehood would be unique, special, sacred. It was at Mt. Sinai that we truly became the people of Israel. Our own synagogue is an expression of that covenant—every synagogue is—a practical reflection of the holiness that God gave us at that remarkable moment.
If we were Orthodox Jews we would, in theory, believe that what God revealed to our people at Mt. Sinai was not only the Ten Commandments but the entirety of the Torah, all Five Books, as well as the rest of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, and the Oral Torah of the Mishnah and the Gemarah, the Talmud, as well. Yet that is well beyond what our Torah portion of Yitro tells us. In fact, by saying that the entirety of Jewish law, the whole of the written and oral Torah were gifted to us at Mt. Sinai we rather devalue the Ten Commandments themselves, the only direct revelation our tradition says was ever given to our people directly by God.
So why does our tradition teach this? Why does it say that the mitzvot, the commandments were all given to us by God at Sinai when it isn’t factually true? Is this just an issue of alternative interpretations—dare I say it, alternative facts?
This question troubles the rabbinic commentators, who believe that the Torah never wastes a phrase, and certainly never makes a mistake. The rabbis’ brilliant answer teaches us a profound truth about ourselves, our synagogues and our communities—and maybe even a bit about mountains.
According to the commentators, all the commandments theoretically given b’Har Sinai, at Mt. Sinai, are actually given miSinai, from Sinai—with the metaphoric authority of Sinai. That is, Mt. Sinai is not just a geographical location, no matter how important, and it is not a simple matter of a place at all. It is much more than that, something both broader and deeper.
Mt. Sinai is a sacred idea, a holy concept. For wherever we learn and do mitzvot, whenever we complete good acts, do tzedakah, observe religious rituals with sanctity and meaning, study Torah, pray together with sincerity and work to perfect the world through tikun olam, wherever and whenever we strive to make the world a holier, more Jewish place—well, then we are standing at Mt. Sinai.
Almost literally, as committed Jews we take Mt. Sinai with us into our communities, our congregations, and so bring God’s very presence into the world. It’s a powerful message indeed. And that is just as true whether we are standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai or here in the foothills of the Catalinas. As long as we gather in a congregation, as long as we create true Jewish community of study, prayer and social justice we are standing at Sinai.
In other words, it’s like the old Yiddish proverb: “Mountains do not come together. People do.” It’s not the mountain that matters; it’s us.
But before we conclude, a word about mountains. I must admit, I like mountains very much, and have spent time among them, sometimes hiking up them, sometimes skiing down them, occasionally first one and then the other. And mountains have always held an important place in Jewish tradition. We sang a Psalm earlier tonight, Psalm 121, Esa ainai el heharim, I lift up my eyes to the mountains from where my help comes, one of many Psalms and prayers that center on the mountains. Various mountains feature prominently throughout Biblical and ancient Jewish history. Among the many heights ascended in the Tanakh are two mountains that rise above all others spiritually and are truly central to Jewish tradition: the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which remains both focal and controversial today, and Mt. Sinai. We can talk about the Temple Mount another time. But tonight, a little more about Mt. Sinai.
I have a personal story about visiting Mt. Sinai. Four years ago on this very night, the Sabbath evening of Shabbat Yitro, during my sabbatical journey around the world, I traveled to all of the holiest places on earth in a bit less than three months, visiting the greatest sacred sites of every major religion. Perhaps the most important place I wanted to see, on a personal level, was Mt. Sinai, or at least the place most people believe was the traditional location of Mt. Sinai. It’s 140 miles from Sharm el Sheikh in the southeastern part of the Sinai Desert, in Egypt, a place called Jebel Musa in Arabic. I decided that I would hike up Mt. Sinai on the Shabbat when we traditionally read the Ten Commandments from the Torah in synagogue, Shabbat Yitro, this very Shabbat—and ascending it overnight when I reached the top I would chant those Ten Statements, the Aseret HaDibrot, in Hebrew at dawn.
The full story of my journey to the mountaintop that day included nearly as many twists and turns as the Biblical narrative of our ancestors’ travels to the same place. As it turned out, it involved a convoy of military vehicles escorting our mini-bus—and others—to protect us from terrorist attack, long delays and confusing instructions, lack of water and organization and the kind of oddities and insecurities that can accompany travel in that part of the Middle East. Eventually, very short of sleep, water and food, tired from the climb up to the 7500 foot peak, I had the rare experience of standing in what is truly an awesome place, the top of Mt. Sinai, watching rose-fingered dawn spread from jagged peak to peak across that stark and amazing wilderness. And I chanted the Ten Commandments in Hebrew—from my iphone app, of course—while around me other people were reciting the Koran or singing Christian hymns or meditating. It was weird, and gorgeous, and moving, a once-in-lifetime experience.
And yet, the truth is that as intense as that memory is, as extraordinary as it felt at the time, that wasn’t really the most powerful part of Jewish religious experience. In our tradition, being at what might actually have been Mt. Sinai was not as significant as being here tonight, in community, kehillah, seeking God and Torah and holiness and justice in a synagogue. This experience matters more because it requires the daily action that brings Judaism into the world in practical, meaningful ways.
But just what is this amorphous thing, community, kehillah, and what does Judaism teach us about that? And what does it have to do with Sinai?
As you know, this is the Shabbat when we remember and read the Torah portion of Yitro, when we hear just how our ancestors prepared themselves to experience receiving the Ten Commandments, and then heard those great statements directly from God and, in a larger sense, received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It should also be a time when we have the opportunity to see just how our synagogue can become better, stronger and more vital, can bring us together in more meaningful and holier ways, can continue the work of inspiration and achievement that began at Mt. Sinai.
This is the time to think about how we build further on our new community, how we develop our synagogue in ways that create greater learning, spirituality and justice. Because, you see, as awe-inspiring as the experience of Mt. Sinai was, as amazing as climbing that mountain can be, it is not on a far-away peak but right here that we seek to bring the feeling of that sacred mountain into our daily lives in real, practical ways. Because it is here where we have the opportunity to decide how we are to make our lives and actions reflect the values given to us so long ago, symbolically, on that great mountain.
The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked: “Why is it called z’man matan Torah 'The Time that the Torah was Given,' rather than 'The time the Torah was Received?’” He answered: “The giving took place on one day, but the receiving takes place at all times.” Giving Torah was up to God, long ago. Receiving Torah—that is up to us, on this Shabbat and every day.
You see, Mt. Sinai was only great once. But the tradition that was created, and the synagogue, the institution responsible for teaching and making real that tradition, for creating true community based upon it—that can be great any time. Any time we gather together for sincere prayer. Any time we learn together, teach together, create justice together, seek to heal the world together.
On this Shabbat of Yitro, may we learn that extraordinary lesson, and come to live it in this synagogue—here in the foothills of these mountains. Ken Yehi Ratson. So may it be God’s will—and more importantly, ours. Shabbat Shalom.