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Mountains and Congregations

Sermon, Shabbat BeHar 5779

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson

A little old lady from Brooklyn, Mrs. Goldberg, calls her travel agent and asks to book a flight to a small village high in the mountains of Nepal.

“Oh,” the travel agent says. “That’s much too difficult a journey for you. Why don’t I arrange a week for you at a nice beach resort in Florida?”

“No,” says the woman, “It has to be to the highest mountains of Nepal.”

So the travel agent books her a flight to Kathmandu. When she arrives and tells the authorities she intends to visit the small village in the mountains, they also try to talk her out of it. “You’ll need to hire a Sherpa crew to get you there, and the climb is very treacherous.”

“No, I must go there. There’s a holy man I need to see.”

So, shaking their heads, they stamp her passport and let her in, and she hires a Sherpa crew. The Sherpas are dubious but climb high in the mountains with Mrs. Goldberg, and finally get her to the village where the holy man lives. There’s a long line outside in the snow waiting to see the holy man.

The little old lady takes her place in line, and the others waiting beseech her to go back home. “It takes days of standing in this cold and windy line before you get to see the holy man,” they explain. “And then when you get to see him, you are allowed to say only three words.”

“That’s OK,” she replied. “I must see him.”

She perseveres and lasts three days and nights before entering the holy man’s hut. He asks her why she has come, and says she may only reply using three words. And so, finally, she stands before him and says, in a loud voice: “Sheldon, come home!”

I love that joke, and what it implies about how far we may go, and how high in the mountains, only to discover that we are still who we always were… And that it may not be the mountain that matters after all.

This particular Shabbat, Behar, the Torah portion named for a mountain, 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 it is more necessary than it has ever been to gather across all boundary lines and join in prayer, song, study and most importantly community. When we participate together in services at Beit Simcha, work together to improve our society through religious action, study Torah and create a shul that teaches and inspires our children and challenges us to live to our highest ideals, we are doing holy work that defies easy categorization. It is hard to explain precisely what we mean by Jewish community—but we know it when we experience it, and 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 has allowed us not only to survive but to thrive, evolve and grow everywhere and anywhere in the world. Including, of course, in these foothills below the Catalina Mountains.

Every synagogue, every Jewish community is different, of course. Yet there is a common denominator for every one. And that is what our Torah portion this week addresses, although it does so in a curious way.

Behar begins with the statement “Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe beHar Sinai, God spoke to Moses at Mt. Sinai,” an apparently unambiguous phrase: God, through Moses, gave all these commandments to us at Mt. Sinai. Well and good. These rules of holiness and personal conduct must have all been commanded at Mt. Sinai.

Yet earlier in Leviticus the text makes it clear that God actually gave most of these commandments not at Mt. Sinai itself, but in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, the Ohel Mo’eid, the Tent of Meeting, as the people wandered around the Sinai Desert. In fact, according to the evidence of the Torah itself, the whole book of Leviticus was given after we left Sinai and began our journey to the Promised Land. Never mind that most Bible scholars believe Leviticus was composed several centuries later, when there was already a Temple in Jerusalem and a priesthood serving it regularly. Either way, much later.

Clearly, as our portion begins the Israelites aren’t actually still at Mt. Sinai at all and haven’t been there for a while. What gives? Why 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’ rather 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 in the foothills of the Catalinas. As long as we gather in a congregation, as long as we are creating true Jewish community of study, prayer and religious action 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 that way, 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’ll 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, during a sabbatical, I traveled on a journey 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 I would hike up Mt. Sinai on the Shabbat when we traditionally read the Ten Commandments in synagogue, Shabbat Yitro, and ascending it overnight I would chant those Ten Statements 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 oddities and insecurities that can accompany travel in the Middle East. Eventually, very short of sleep and water and food, tired from the climb up 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 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, we are now in the period of the Counting of the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavu’ot when we remember the ways our ancestors prepared themselves to experience receiving the Ten Commandments, and in a larger sense, the Torah at Mt. Sinai. These seven weeks between the festival of freedom and the holiday of covenant are a time in the ritual calendar when we look at our own lives and see how we might better reflect our own Jewish values in our daily experience. It is a time when we have the opportunity to see if our institutions can become better, stronger and more vital, can bring us together in more meaningful and holier ways.

In other words, this is the time to think about how we build further on our strong community, how we develop our synagogue in ways that create greater learning, spirituality and justice. It is 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 our actions reflect the values given to us so long ago, symbolically at least, on that mountain.

The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked: “Why is Shavuot 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.” 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 Behar, may we learn that extraordinary lesson, and come to live it in this synagogue. Ken Yehi Ratson. So may it be God’s will—and more importantly, ours. Shabbat Shalom.

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