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Shavuot 5767

May 21, 2007

By Rabbi S. Robert Waxman, AJR ’79

During these weeks since the Festival of Passover we have been moving toward Shavuot ‘ Pentecost, the Festival of Weeks, the time of the giving and receiving of Torah.

What is Torah? That is a basic question. As we look into possible answers to this question we will have to begin by asking additional basic questions.

What is our goal in life as modern Americans? It is to have a life in community and a life of meaning. As we pause in our journey at Mount Sinai, let us consider how the Torah may be understood in terms of community and meaning.

Let us consider where each of us is with regard to our own personal religious life. The first question is not what each of us believes. No, our beliefs are likely to change with time. It is where we stand in relation to our tradition, what the place of the community is in our lives.

These ideas have been emphatically taught by one of the prominent leaders of the American Jewish community, Prof. Arnold Eisen, the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary. While Prof. Eisen is now the head of a seminary in the Conservative movement, he is passionate in his celebration of the many voices in Jewish life today. He writes, “I want to argue as forcefully as I can that the existence of multiple and conflicting Judaisms in America today is cause not for alarm but for celebration, despite the heartbreak of dispute and mutual recrimination that it causes daily. Pluralism inside Judaism, as in America as a whole, makes us stronger.” (Taking Hold of Torah, p. xiv.)

What unites us is that we all live in the world. We are a part of it, not beyond it. The Torah is not for angels. Angels do not eat or drink or sleep. They do not get sick or suffer poverty. Thus, our life on earth is one of creation and tikkun olam, the call to repair what we see needs to be fixed.

And so let us consider the beginning, the beginning of time and the beginning of the Torah – with the Creation stories – you know: day one, day two, and the second story placed in the Garden of Eden. Why start there? Why not start with the commandments regarding Passover. These are our first mitzvot given to us as a people. This, by the way, is not my question. This was asked by Rashi in the Middle Ages.

Tradition answers: To set the stage of history, to introduce us to God, Creator of heaven and earth.

But Prof. Eisen gives us another answer, his own answer. He says that the Torah starts where we do. It locates us at the beginning of the human race. Who are we? We are each the son or daughter of specific parents and not others; we are members in families that claim us. Finding our identities is a basic need. All of us think about who we are. And I mean all of us – from Ryan and all his friends to Tony Soprano going to his therapy sessions.

Thus, the Torah is not a science book. Neither Darwin nor Einstein need pose problems for Jewish readers (Eisen, p. 2).

As the Torah progresses, we can identity more and more with Biblical stories and situations. We learn from them all, the parental dilemmas and sibling rivalries. We read and we relate. Their stories become our stories.

We are all like Abraham. We all must leave our parents’ homes and go out into the world. For many of us it is the college years. For others it is a job or the military. We leave our family heritage and then we need to find our way back. We are like Abraham who had to leave Ur of Chaldees and followed God to the land that he would be shown. It was not an easy journey for Abraham and it is not an easy journey for America Jewish adults.

So at this season of Shavuot let us continue the journey. Let us look to our traditions to give our lives meaning and let us help each other build community.