Tonight is Shavuot, the holiday that marks the giving of the Torah and the beginning of a collective Jewish history. It’s the peak moment that follows the Exodus, in which a band of freed slaves become something more: free, filled with divine purpose, and fully committed to a holy vision of the world. It is from this encounter that humanity first received the notion that all human beings are created equal. It is from this encounter that we developed the practice of a weekly day of rest. And it is from this encounter that the ultimate vision of a world without war began to emerge.
Every year on this date we relive that encounter. Jews around the world stay up all night studying and celebrating the Torah, our tradition of Bible, Mishna, Talmud, law, legend, mysticism, and our own new insights, the ones that occur to us as we pore over texts and notice anomalies and wonder about how the ancient words apply to our own lives. Finally, at dawn, we receive the Torah again. We renew the covenant with the Divine. We are filled with renewed inspiration and vigor, ready to continue in our mission of healing the world.
This year, I feel profound doubt in this process. It is not because we are in quarantine and can not attend synagogue, where the morning service usually takes place. That is a challenge, but I have faith in our unity even in quarantine.
It is not because, as some argue, our generation is somehow diminished in our distance from the original encounter at Sinai. I have faith in our intrinsic holiness.
And it is not because of the recent rise of antisemitism. I have faith in Jewish history, and know that we have faced far worse moments before this.
My doubts about the Shavuot encounter come from another place: Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In that place, just a few days ago, a human being, created in the image of the Divine, was murdered by police, and it was captured on camera. It is difficult to watch. You have seen the images, the police officer kneeling on a man’s neck. The man pleading for air, then losing consciousness. And you know the rest of the story: the death of the man, George Floyd, who was sought by police for a nonviolent crime of forgery. The citizens standing around watching, perhaps frozen into submission by the authority of the police, perhaps indifferent. The rage, grief, and horror these images evoke in me are too familiar.
I am afraid. I am afraid that a land in which this can happen is unworthy of Sinai. Why would God ever want to visit us in this morally forsaken place? Perhaps we will wait all night, only to find an empty dawn — no renewed revelation, no renewed covenant. Silence. A silence of protest.
There is only one thing that gives me hope as we prepare for Shavuot. It is a midrash, an old legend, about the first encounter at Sinai. Listen:
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: When Moses ascended on High to receive the Torah, the ministering angels protested before the God: The Torah is a hidden treasure, and you seek to give it to flesh and blood? God said to Moses: Provide them with an answer as to why the Torah should be given to the people. Moses said: What is written in the Torah? “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of Egypt from the house of bondage”. Moses said to the angels: Did you descend to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why should the Torah be yours? “Remember the Shabbat day to sanctify it”. Do you perform labor that you require rest from it? “Do not swear falsely”. Do you conduct business with one another that you might come to swear falsely? “Honor your father and your mother”. Do you have fathers or mothers to honor? “You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal”. Is there jealousy among you, or is there an evil inclination within you that would render these commandments relevant? Immediately they agreed with the Holy One, Blessed be He, that He made the right decision to give the Torah to the people.
The only reason we received the Torah in the first place is that we are human. It is our fragility, our mortality – our flaws – which justify the revelation.
The Torah was not given to us as a reward. It was given to us as a challenge, and a tool with which to meet that challenge. The challenge is to create a world of justice and compassion, in which every human being is treated with dignity, equality, and reverence. We have not succeeded in the task. To live in a society in which a man can be asphyxiated in public is a condemnation of all our professed values. We cannot approach Sinai with any sense of entitlement. We cannot engage with the Divine with complacency. We must approach that mountain with trepidation, urgency, and humility, and with the image of George Floyd at the forefront of our minds.
Are we worthy? We are not. But perhaps that is why we will hear the voice of the Divine at dawn tomorrow. Perhaps the painful urgency of our need, the reality of our failures, a sense of pity, will open the gates of heaven. Perhaps this time we will know what to do with the Torah we are given.