“Returning To Sinai” – Shabbat Behar-Bechukkotai, Friday, May 15, 2020

This was the week I finally did it. I made time for a project that I have put off for the past two years since we moved into our current house – and, truth be told, for some years before that. This was the week I started opening up boxes and bags of family memories bequeathed to me by my late father, Big Art. He seems to have never thrown anything away – including his own elementary-school report cards, lots of photos of a very little me – “Number One Child and Grandchild” – and my “Baby Book.” All of which unveil all kinds of information that I never knew before.

Back in the day, baby books were not scrapbooks. They were records of a baby’s family and early experiences.

I know from this baby book, for example, that I laughed out loud for the first time at age three months, at which time I also made very clear my likes and dislikes. I learned to climb stairs at nine months. And I was continually walking by the time I hit 13 months old.

Here, under health, I discover that I had both Chicken Pox and German Measles within a few months of each other before I turned seven, and that my first train ride was when we lived in Colorado. I was in kindergarten, and we rode all the way to Philadelphia and back.

The information has been meticulously recorded, through most of elementary school. Some things are a surprise – I was obsessed with Popeye, for example. Some things shouldn’t be a surprise at all – like also being obsessed with Lassie.

Many of these details explain a whole lot about how I became who I am today.

This Shabbat, we conclude our reading of the Book of Leviticus with a double portion, B’har-Bechukkotai. The title “B’har” refers to the first verse:

א וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה בְּהַר סִינַי לֵאמֹר:

God spoke to Moses on Har Sinai, on Mount Sinai[1]

Now, that statement by itself seems unremarkable, right? God talks to Moses all the time. But the timing here is a little bizarre. As my colleague Cantor David Berger of KAM Isaiah Israel in Chicago writes in this week’s on-line commentary,[2] “Why mention that now? Why, after the whole Book of Leviticus with all its many laws and details, does the Torah suddenly return us to Mount Sinai?”

Cantor Berger explores a number of traditional sources, but the one that draws my attention is that of Nachmanides – a Spanish sage of the 13th century also known as the Ramban. The Ramban doesn’t think this statement is out of place at all. It is, he believes, one step in the larger story. First came the revelation to Moses on Sinai, then the second set of tablets after the peoples’ idolatry with the golden calf. That’s when Moses explained God’s command to build the Tabernacle, so that the people would be assured of God’s presence in their midst and not turn to golden idols.

After that, says the Ramban, the people needed to understand how to use the Tabernacle and the altar, so God gave the priests all of their rules about the cult and the sacrifices that make up the book of Leviticus. Here, at the end of the Leviticus, God returns to the laws that apply to every Israelite, as a reminder that Torah is for everyone.

Writes Cantor Berger: “Returning to Sinai, according to Ramban’s teaching, means connecting our immediate story to the larger narratives of our people and our tradition.”

That is, of course, what we do at every Jewish festival – including our re-enactment of the acceptance of Torah at Sinai in our upcoming holiday of Shavuot.

But I think each of us returns to Sinai in our own way, in our own time, for the same reason: To connect our personal life stories to the larger narratives of the families we come from, and to their traditions.

Like the Israelites of old, we sometimes need to be reminded of where we have come from – and of how far we have journeyed. Returning to Sinai, for us, means opening up memories that help us understand what has made us the people we are today.

Those memories can be both happy and painful. I found that, this week. They remind us of the people we have loved and lost along the way, and of places we yearn for that no longer exist or no longer belong to us. The Jewish nation is like that, too. Many Jews still mourn the destruction of the Temple. We all mourn the destruction of European Jewry.

But we are all grateful for the great rabbis and the unknown ordinary Jews who made new lives for themselves wherever they found themselves, and who used Torah and tradition to create the rules and structure that united their communities.

So, too, each of us finds joy and comfort and confidence in our own journeys.

There’s one big difference, though. For the Jewish people, the revelation at Sinai is a single momentous event that shaped the destiny of an entire nation. For each us individually, I think, our Sinai is really a string of smaller events and situations that we internalize and build on, that take us from there to here.

Here’s my baby book again. Under “Baby’s Diet,” there was not a single new food introduced to me that I did not like, including fruit, vegetables, and Jello. (Yeah, that sounds about right). One of my favorite TV shows, it turns out was “Lassie” – something I did not remember but which makes perfect sense to anyone who has been to my house any time in the last 30 years.

There are also detailed descriptions of my first five birthdays, and my first four years of school after that. Every birthday was celebrated in a different place, including four different homes. And from Kindergarten through third grade, I already had attended four different schools in three different cities, in two different states.

My dad was a government contractor. We moved around – a lot. I would go on to attend a dozen schools before I hit college, including three overseas. All that moving got to be common. And it never has bothered me to move from place to place. But some of my siblings didn’t fare so well and don’t cope so well with change. And that, too, has shaped who they are today. Even sharing many of the same childhood experiences, our own personal Sinais are very different from one another’s.

In a way, I think our ancestors’ experience of the revelation at Sinai had that same effect. Some remained faithful. Some rebelled – with tragic consequences. Some passed their faith, and their history, and their traditions down to their children and their children’s children. Some fell away.

As the Jewish world approaches the festival of Shavuot, we mark this event that brought us together as a nation in so many different ways. Some of us revere the traditional ideas about what Torah is – concepts that were crystallized by the great rabbis of the Middle Ages. Others of us see Torah through a modern lens and fresh interpretations that keep Torah alive and relevant for us. But somehow – in some extraordinary way – our own personal journeys from Sinai have brought us to the same place – to celebrating the same holy day. No matter how we got here – here we are, together. Not just as a community, but as a people.

So yes, after all this time since we made that covenant – after being buried in the details of building the tabernacle, and establishing the rules of the priesthood and the sacrifices; after being snowed under by all of the regulations about families and communities and business deals and our judicial system – after all that: Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe b’har Sinai. The Torah takes us back to what’s most important.

Judaism does not live in the rules and regulations. It lives in the relationships – with God, with each other, and within ourselves. It lives in the vow we swore to be faithful, as God is faithful. To be loving, as God is loving. To be committed to each other, as God remains steadfast with us.

Throughout our lives – just like for our ancestors here in the Torah – our hearts and our minds will be brought back to Sinai. We will remember how we began, and how we have journeyed, and how we have become the people we are. We may not know where our journeys from Sinai will lead us next. But we know the strength and the wisdom and the relationships we have cultivated up to today will guide us through the challenges of what may come.

Ken yehi ratson. Let this be God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin

[1] Leviticus 25:1

[2] Cantor David Berger, “Are There Limits to the Revelation Received at Sinai?” published May 13, 2020 on https://reformjudaism.org


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