Standing at Sinai Today
This coming week, my congregation will join with our neighboring synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, to celebrate the festival of Shavuot through the ritual of Confirmation for four very special young ladies: Gabrielle Gellerman, Michelle Larsen, Shai Mally, and Rachel Whiskeyman.
Confirmation is a life cycle ceremony which came “late to the game.” It was the creation of Reform Judaism, with the original intention being that it would replace Bar Mitzvah. The desire of those early Reform Jewish leaders was to move Jewish education beyond the age of 13, for at that time Bar Mitzvah marked the end of Jewish education for most Jewish children. By placing Confirmation at the conclusion of 10th grade, they added three years to our children’s religious school studies. These are a very important three years when you consider that these three years mark a period of significant growth in a child’s intellectual and emotional development. It is during these three years that our children become far more capable of maturely understanding the fine nuances and complexities of Jewish beliefs. They have finally reached a stage in their lives when it is no longer necessary for Jewish educators to “dumb down” and simplify the teachings of our faith so that they can understand and appreciate them.
The maturity of the students by the age of Confirmation was a very important consideration in framing this ceremony. It was precisely because of their increased maturity that our early leaders decided to place the Confirmation service on the festival of Shavuot, the third of our three major Pilgrimage Festivals, when in ancient days, all Jews made pilgrimage to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. They chose Shavuot because of what Shavuot means to Jewish life. It is nothing less than the festival of “Matan Torah,” of “the Giving of the Torah.” It is the festival when we celebrate our people standing at the foot of Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah directly from God.
Through their celebration of Shavuot, and particularly through the act of Confirmation, our young people stand at Sinai to receive the Torah. With somewhere between 10 to 12 years of formal Jewish studies under their belts, these young people, with full intention and a body of knowledge based up their studies and experiences, stand at Sinai and say: “Yes! I willingly and joyfully accept the responsibilities and the gift of Torah; the gift of living a Jewish life, Jewishly connected to God, the Jewish people, and the world.”
Confirmation is a beautiful thing. However, it is easy for us to deceive ourselves into thinking that Confirmation, and the power of the festival of Shavuot, are only intended for our religious school’s graduating 10th graders. In truth, it is not only for them but it is also for all of us as well.
On Yom Kippur morning, in Reform synagogues, we read from the Torah, out of the book of DEUTERONOMY: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem, rasheichm shifteichem, zikneichem v’shotreichem, kol ish Yisraeil. Tapchem, n’sheichem, v’gercha asher b’kerev machanecha, meichotev eitzecha ad sho’eiv meimecha. L’avrecha bivrit Adonai Elohecha uv’alato asher Adonai Elohecha koreit imach hayom… V’lo itchem levadchem Anochi koreit et a brit hazot v’et ha’alah hazot. Ki et asher yeshno po imanu omeid hayom lifnei Adonai Eloheinu, v’eit asher einenu po imanu hayom.” – “You are standing this day, all of you, before Adonai your God – the heads of your tribes, your elders and officers, every man in Israel, your children, your women, and the stranger in the midst of your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water – to enter into a covenant with Adonai your God, and into His oath, which Adonai your God makes with you this day… But it is not only with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath. For with those who are here standing with us this day before Adonai our God and also with those who are not here with us today.”
This is a very important text when it comes to appreciating the Jewish understanding of what transpired at Sinai. In order to unpack and decode it, we have to understand that the rabbis viewed every single word of the Torah as being sacred and important. There was no literary fluff. Nor could the Torah contradict itself. When it appears to do so, that contradiction needs to be resolved.
So what does this text teach us about that moment when our people stood at Sinai?
The first thing that the rabbis point out is that the text reads “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem – You are standing this day, kulchem, all of you.” Why, they asked, does the Torah include the word “kulchem – all of you”? Would it not have been enough just to say “You are standing this day”? What meaning does the word “kulchem – all of you” add to the text. The answer that the rabbis give is that it means “all Jews”; not just the Jews alive at that time but also all the Jews throughout the generations, those of the past and those yet to be born. Every Jew, for all time, stood at Sinai.
But if that is the case, then later on, there seems to be a contradiction in the text, for the Torah continues to read, “those who are here standing with us this day before Adonai our God and also with those who are not here with us today.” If there are Jews who are “not here with us today,” then how can all Jews be there? The rabbis resolved this apparent contradiction by stating that the Jews who were not there, were just not there physically. However, they were there spiritually. All Jews throughout the generations were there, standing at Sinai, spiritually, if not our bodies then at least our souls.
We – each and every one of us – were present for Matan Torah, for the Giving of the Torah. I was there. You were there. Every single Jew in our congregation who is not with us tonight to observe Shabbat was there. Every single Jew in the Quad Cities. Every single Jew in the world. We all stood at the foot of Sinai. We all heard God’s voice recite the words of the Ten Commandments; the same words which our Confirmands will read out of the Torah scroll during their special service. And even more important than having heard, we also accepted.
While Shavuot is the festival of Matan Torah – the Giving of the Torah – there is yet another side to that equation. It is Kaballat Torah – The receiving, and accepting, of the Torah. A gift can only be given if it is also accepted. Otherwise it is not a gift. As important as it was that God gave us the Torah, it was even more important that we accepted it.
When we talk about standing at Sinai, we are talking even more about our acceptance than about God’s giving. It is nice that God wanted to give us a gift. It was very generous of God. But it is essential that we accepted that gift, and with it we accepted all the responsibility that goes hand-in-hand with that gift.
Shavuot is a time when we are supposed to remember all the commitments that we made when all those years ago, we stood, as disembodied souls, united with all the souls of all the Jews for all time, at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is a time when not just our children but also we, ourselves, are expected to confirm our devotion to the fulfillment of those commitments. On Shavuot, we stand with all Jews, and we stand before God, and we say: “Yes! I am a Jew, and I will live my life as a Jew, in thought and in deed, in beliefs and in values.”
Yet we also must remember that the values of Shavuot were never intended to be bottled up into one holiday celebration. The holiday is to reinforce for us a lifelong, day-to-day commitment. Just as our commitment to freedom should not be limited to the observance of Passover, and our commitment to repentance and atonement should not be limited to the observance of Yom Kippur, so our commitment to living our lives guided by the principles of Torah should not be limited to our observance of Shavuot. Rather, from Shavuot, we should be renewing our sense of how beautiful and inspiring it was to stand at the foot of Sinai, in the presence of God, and to hear God’s commanding voice, and to be filled with that strong sense of this is how I wish to lead my life. If we can accomplish that, then perhaps – just perhaps – we can find ourselves every day – every morning we wake up – filled with wonder of standing at Sinai.
Tags: Confirmation, Congregation Beth Israel, Connecting to God, Gabrielle Gellerman, God, Jewish Holidays, Joint Religious School of Temple Emanuel & Congregation Beth Israel, Matan Torah, Michelle Larsen, Quad Cities Jewish Community, Rachel Whiskeyman, Reform Judaism, Shai Mally, Shavout, Sinai Encounter with God, Standing at Sinai, Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Torah, Tri City Jewish Center, Yom KippurYou can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.