This past Tuesday, we began an adult-education program on “Pirke Avot,” the ethical teachings of the early rabbis. Pirke Avot is part of the Mishnah, the first effort by the sages two thousand years ago to select, organize and codify the mitzvot of the Torah for the Jews of the post-Temple world.
These sages provided the bridge between what we’d call Biblical Judaism – the way Jews lived and worshiped according to the commandments of the Bible – and what came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism. The sages, who witnessed the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem by the Romans, and the slaughter and displacement of countless Jews, recognized that if they didn’t essentially re-imagine Judaism for a world without the Bible’s Temple, priesthood and sacrificial cult, Judaism would cease to exist.
What they did was quite extraordinary. They searched deeply and deliberately into the Bible itself to extract the underlying values of its narratives and its divine obligations. They focused on the things that Jews could do wherever they lived and however they made a living. They fashioned a judicial system that any community could create. They adapted the priestly rites of the Temple into a liturgy that any Jew could recite and follow – for sabbaths, feast days and fast days, and even every day.
The sages knew that what they were doing was brave and bold – and necessary. They also knew that their authority to do it would be questioned by a lot of people. And with good reason. What gave this group of scholars and teachers the right to re-invent Judaism for the world?
The very first paragraph of Pirke Avot seeks to answer this question:
“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient [in the administration of] justice, raise many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.”
In other words, the sages themselves were the sole inheritors of the Torah and its traditions, going back in an unbroken line to Moses himself. It may have been a bold move, but it worked. Because the rabbinic Judaism they created – starting with the Mishnah – is the foundation of everything that we believe and study and do today.
Yes, the rabbis laid out this chain of tradition to justify their own self-defined status. But I think that, for us, what they did is so important for another reason. They assured the Jews of a post-Temple world – people who were left bereft, isolated, afraid, and vulnerable – they assured them that they were not alone. That they were not forgotten. That they belonged to a people and a mission thousands of years in the making. That no matter their location or their circumstances, they were still the beloved of God. And that, as much as they needed God, God needed them and their faithfulness, and their trust, and their love.
I can’t think of a more important message tonight, here, with you, together but separated. We, too, are victims of circumstances far beyond our comprehension or our power. But the rabbis teach us that, although we may be physically separated, we are not alone.
We have made that clear – YOU have made that clear – each and every Friday night that we are together. This pandemic is the most frightening, challenging, and disorienting thing to happen in our lifetimes. And yet here we are, several dozen of us, every week – smiling at each other, singing with each other, joining our voices in prayer even when the mute buttons are on.
What is happening tonight is just what our Torah imagined, long before the rabbis came to be.
This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, describes the elaborate ceremonies on the eighth day of the high priests’ anointing in the Tent of Meeting. The priests – Aaron and his sons – are supposed to be center-stage of this impressive event. But the words of Torah give us a clue that something more important is happening.
“They [the people] brought to the front of the Tent of Meeting the things that Moses had commanded,” says the Torah, “and the community leadership came forward and stood before the Eternal.
“And Moses said to them: ‘This is the thing the Eternal has commanded that you do, that the Presence of the Eternal may appear to you.’”
Okay, Moses, what is it we are commanded to do? This…what? You’d expect that Moses would then detail some rules, some mitzvot, that the people have to do in order to feel God’s presence among them, right? But no, nothing. Moses then turns to Aaron to organize the offerings.
So let’s take another look at the text. I’m going to re-read it to you.
“They [the people] brought to the front of the Tent of Meeting the things that Moses had commanded, and the community leadership came forward and stood before the Eternal.
“And Moses said to them: ‘This is the thing the Eternal has commanded that you do, that the Glory of God may appear to you.’”
This: zeh ha’davr: This IS THE THING that God wanted you to do – THIS! What you’re doing right now! Gathering together, drawing near, everyone feeling a part of this and taking a role in making this happen! THIS is what brings the Glory of God here to dwell among you!
This “k’vod Adonai,” this “Glory of God” – In the Torah, this is often something that is a physical manifestation of God. The quaking of the mountain. The cloud descending. The pillar of fire.
But I think that k’vod Adonai signifies another physical manifestation. The Glory of God – is us. We become the Glory of God when we gather together, drawing near, everyone feeling a part of this and taking a role in making this happen.
Every single Friday night that we have been on Zoom, our numbers have far exceeded what we could expect on Shabbat in our sanctuary. Some of us are regular Shabbat goers. Some are not far from Altoona but not close enough to always be there. Some are far away – members who have moved to other states, relatives of members who have found their way here. Because in a world where so much is unknown and unsafe, this is a sanctuary.
I talk so much about how Friday night comes whether we acknowledge it or not. But we make Shabbat. Our gathering together – when we are so exposed and disoriented – this too is k’vod Adonai. And it is as powerful as a pillar of fire or the shaking of a mountain.
Like the sages of old, we are re-inventing Judaism for what we need now. We are, as Pirke Avot taught us, “making a fence around the Torah” –protecting our traditions and our faith as we protect each other.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.
©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Mishnah Avot 1:1
 Exodus 9:5-6.
 See midrash attributed to “M. Cohen” in Torah Gems Vol. II: Shemot, Vaykra, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p., 264.