Shavuot: The Wilderness Experience that Tested and Defined Us as a People

Rabbi Elliot J. Holin is the spiritual leader of Congregation Kol Ami, Elkins Park, PA, and a member of the board of JSPAN. On erev Shavuot, May 28th, and on Shavuot, May 29th, we will celebrate the holy day that commemorates the gift of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Great drama defined the moment: “As morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain. It was surrounded by smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire. The smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently.” {Exodus 19:16-18}. Some people were surely terrified by this awesome display of power, while others must have been captivated by the unfolding moment. I imagine that everyone was speechless. Those whose nerves were shattered at Sinai by fear and doubt helped create the Golden Calf. It was their greatest folly. It hastened their deaths. There were others who discovered the meaning of faith, defined as "the ability to depend upon." They held their breath and hoped that God would now tell them what was expected of them. Slowly but surely, they were being forged into a community of faith. It would take time and patience. As the people left Sinai and moved further into the wilderness, they fed Moses and Aaron a steady diet of criticism and complaints, and occasionally launched mutinies against them. Little wonder that Moses bristled at the lack of communal support and persistent negativity. Those he would come to call “stiff necked” portrayed Egypt as an ancient Club Med with buffet dining! {"We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt: the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic!" Numbers 11:5}. Moses almost resigned in protest. I think that one of God’s messages was this: "You cannot have faith in Me unless you have faith in each other. Ours is a vertical and horizontal covenant." The wilderness experience tested us and defined us. Leadership was decentralized. Moses appointed elders and men of experience to share the responsibilities and burdens. The Tent of Meeting moved in our midst like a heartbeat, and the Ten Commandments gave meaning to our journey and pointed us toward the future. The Ten Commandments have stood the test of time, and they have been tested by time. However, they are not called the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. They are "the ten words" or "phrases," or if you like, "the ten statements." A better sense of what they convey would be to refer to them as The Ten Ethical Statements. The Torah consists of stories as well as commandments – 613 to be precise – and we are told that Micah reduced them to three phrases: "Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." Isaiah based all the mitzvot on two of them: "Keep justice and righteousness." Habbakuk expressed it all in a single thought: "The righteous shall live by their faith." Amos echoed that guiding principle: "Seek Me and live." Rabbi Akiba said that the greatest principle of the Torah is found in the verse, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Rabbi Hillel summed it all up with the words, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor." These are calls to conscience, and then to action. The goal is to make them meaningful by making them personal! It is not enough to nod in agreement about the nobility of the statements. The challenge is to incorporate them into our lives. Allow me this example. "Remember the Shabbat to sanctify it." There are many ways to do so: daven, study, sex. I knew this would get your attention! Here is another one: do not read or send e-mails on Shabbat! Claim this zone of sanctified time as wholly different – pardon the pun – by treating the day as different from the other days of the week when you are tied to the Internet 18-7 {I imagine that you occasionally get some sleep}. Can you brilliant people refrain from sending e-mails to each other about JSPAN initiatives on Shabbat, knowing how tempting it is to respond immediately to what you read? One thing. Just one thing. Do not send e-mails on Shabbat. But it is not a little thing. It has meaning. It may help you define with greater clarity what it means to be holy in other ways. And then, if you do not read or send any e-mail on Shabbat, you will discover a little more about what it is to feel liberated. This, after all, is the essence of Shabbat, and it is especially meaningful this year when Shavuot merges into Shabbat. Blessings upon blessings: Torah, time, rest, reflection, resolve, redemption.