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What Each Of Us Heard At Sinai

At our Tikkun Leil Shavuot tonight, we watched the videos prepared by the URJ staff and used the suggested study guides to propel us into meaningful learning and dialogue.

We found ourselves discussing the midrash that describes how each of us stood at Sinai in the moment of Revelation. The study guide asked us: “What does this mean to you (that we stood together at Sinai)? Does it make you feel more connected to God… to the people around you?”

One member of my community responded that yes, when she thought about standing at Sinai, she felt connected to Jews all over the world and to Jews throughout the ages.

Another member of the group said that this image made her angry. We all stood at Sinai, and yet today, there are Jews who do not accept those of us in the Reform (and wider non-Orthodox) community. How can it be? Do they not believe that we all stood together at Sinai? Did they not hear the part about each of us being holy? About each of us being created b’tzelem Elohim (in God’s Image)?

In today’s fractured and fragmented Jewish world, the thought of standing together at Sinai is bitter-sweet. We long to feel the kinship we should share, having experienced such a moment together, and yet we are painfully divided by the way we understand what we heard, or what we think we heard in that very same moment.

When I imagine Revelation, I imagine a Divine cacophony, as each word and verse of Torah was spoken simultaneously. Though there were enough Jewish souls there for each of us to have heard and retained some of the revealed words, it would have been impossible for each of us to hear all of it. Part of how I understand the diversity of biblical commentary, midrash and interpretation, and part of how I understand the ongoing-ness of Revelation, stems from this image. Each of us brings back into the world the part of Torah we heard and retained. Each of us clings to the parts that we feel most connected to. Some of us hold up the ethical imperatives and claim, “THIS IS TORAH!” Yet others hold up the ritual mitzvot and proclaim, “THIS IS TORAH!” And sadly, while many of us would agree that both are Torah and that they need not be mutually exclusive, there are those for whom one is valued over the other. Sometimes we forget that what we heard at Sinai wasn’t necessarily all that was heard at Sinai.

How can they have stood next to us at Sinai and said  ‘na’aseh v’nishma’ (we shall do and we shall listen), and then treat us in ways that seem counter to the intention behind these words? 

This is the question that is posed by my learners.

Maybe they missed that part.  I responded. Maybe you and I were hearing, “you shall be holy, for I the Eternal Your God am Holy,” while they were hearing, “be mindful of all my mitzvot.”

We might think that they missed something important, and they might think we missed something really important.

I’ll venture to say that both notions are correct.

Even when we live our lives deeply rooted in our understanding of what God wants of us, it’s impossible for us to have retained each word of Torah, and whatever parts we’ve missed, it’s a loss and a shame. And it’s room to grow. Something to work toward. What is amazing and beautiful and awesome is that we get to come back to Sinai each year. We get to open our ears and try to hear something we missed the last time we were there.

It is awesome and it is challenging and yes, it is sometimes problematic.

But what is problematic about the diversity of the Jewish people is not that we stand at Sinai and hear different things. What is problematic, is forgetting to turn to our neighbors afterward and ask them, “What did you hear?”

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