Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin, 5.24.19
Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale, Arizona
My husband and I are blessed to be celebrating our eleventh wedding anniversary tomorrow. The last eleven years feel at once like a moment and a lifetime. They are a testament to both our natural partnership and our commitment to the hard work of marriage.
Reflecting on the last eleven years, I looked around our house and noticed how many of our decorations and belongings are gifts from that special day eleven years ago. From the dishes we use each day, to the afghan I curled up in on the couch as I wrote these words — so many of our everyday treasures are still a celebration of the very beginning of our lives together.
Our wedding gifts now fall into a few different categories. For example, the well loved afghan and the daily used dishware — these are gifts of which we have enjoyed regular use — so much so that to be honest they probably need replacing.
We also have the gifts that we like to look at — but are just too fancy for every day. For example, on a whim we registered for a gorgeous crystal vase. It felt expensive and luxurious, and we were shocked when a generous relative actually bought it for us. It sits today on our mantle looking lovely. But when my husband comes home with flowers, there is no way I would ever put them in that vase. It is way to nice to actually use.
And then there is the third kind of gift. I think we only have one like this. This is our fondue set. It is literally still in this box, which is taped shut in its original packaging. It has moved with us to six different homes, three different cities. Eleven years ago when we registered for our wedding I thought it would be fun to host a fondue party. I still think it would be fun to have a fondue party… however, apparently, it’s not quite fun enough to actually open the box, invite people over, melt some cheese and do it.
Think back to the gifts you’ve received over the years.
I’m sure you all have some of these — the gifts that you use regularly, the gifts that are reserved for special occasions, the gifts still in the boxes. Perhaps you even have received gifts that you’ve later returned to the store for something you like better. Think about who gave you those special gifts, and when. Perhaps it was the element of surprise, or the sweetness of the moment that makes the gift mean even more.
Josh and I are not the only ones with a special anniversary coming up. We have all been counting up towards Shavuot, which is just two short weeks away. This marks our 4,000 something anniversary of standing at the mountain and making a promise to God, of receiving the gift of Torah. On Shavuot we celebrate this precious gift of our history, our stories, and our survival.
As we look back at these thousands of years together, at our relationship with God, how do we see the gift of Torah? Is it like the valuable vase, only to be used on special occasions? Is it like the worn afghan that comforts us on cold nights? Or is it the fondue set, untouched, on a forgotten shelf?
The answer will certainly be different for each one of us, as it was for the rabbis and scholars who imagined what it was like to receive this precious gift.
The rabbis of the Talmud describe the moment of revelation. In Tractate Shabbat (88a:5) they describe the Jewish people standing — not at the base of the mountain — but actually under the mountain. The rabbis teach that the Holy One overturned the mountain above the people, hanging it over their heads. God says to them, ‘if you accept the Torah, excellent. And if not, it will be your burial.’
Not exactly the way you’d want to receive the kind of gift that is meant to last for eternity.
This is like the vase that we look at but would never actually use, for fear of damaging it.
Or perhaps the parallel is even more sinister — perhaps this story illustrates a gift that is given under uncomfortable or unseemly circumstances, the gift that has strings attached. Accept it, or I will drop this mountain on you.
There may be some of us who have this relationship to Torah, perhaps with the notion that Jewish tradition is an obligation hanging over our heads, something we do because we have to, or else. There isn’t a lot of joy in this kind of gift.
Luckily this isn’t the only version of the story. In the Tanchuma (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tissa 37), the rabbis muse that Moses received the Torah privately on Mount Sinai. They imagine sparks emanating from the presence of God, manifesting as beams of glory that affixed themselves to Moses, enabling him to write the Torah with this holy inspiration. When Moses came down the mountain, his face glowed with the light of the Divine. Moses did not know it, but this encounter left him forever changed. And when the Israelites saw him, they didn’t understand. What was this gift that made their leader glow? As they stood at the foot of the mountain, they saw Torah as something given to Moses, up in the heights of the heavens. And they are light years away, on solid ground. How could they ever share in this gift?
I wonder if, in this telling, the Israelites were envious of Moses and his radiating light? Were they confused by the shining importance of the moment? Did they believe the gift to be for them, or for Moses alone?
In this story the gift of Torah seems untouchable — like only Moses can take it out of the box. For the rest of the Israelites, Torah and tradition is an abstract promise. It is Moses who shares the covenant with God — the Israelites know it only in story.
Some of us might feel like this sometimes. Like Torah isn’t quite ours. Like it belongs in the hands of our parents, or our spouse, or our rabbis. We are close to the gift, but it isn’t ours to open.
This week’s parasha, Behar, shows us a different version altogether. Just from the title we know that we are neither under a threatening mountain suspended in air, nor are we alone at the foot while the action takes place elsewhere. B’har begins with a prefix — b’ — meaning either in, or on the har, the mountain. We are with it. We are of it.
And in the parasha itself, Torah comes alive in the hands of the Israelites. This parasha teaches the Israelites how to care for the land. Parashat Behar instructs the people to let the land rest, to let those who work upon it rest, to make sure that Shabbat is felt from the ground up through the hands and hearts of the people.
This is how I like to imagine the gift of Torah. Shavuot, our anniversary celebration, is not about accepting Torah through coercion or as bystanders. Torah is our gift to use, to grapple with, to cherish. Rabbi Tali Zelkowitz writes that Jewish programs and institutions need to be less like china shops, and more like jungle gyms. Judaism has survived a long time. Shavuot, our anniversary of being upon the mountain is the proof — and the only thing that will cause our tradition to suffer is if we cease to engage with it.
Judaism is a gift we are meant to open, to explore and enjoy. It’s sanctity is in the experience. Judaism comes alive when we are be’har, a part of the gift given on the mountain. The gift is the sharing of shabbat dinner and drippy Chanukah candles and hands that are sticky with challah dough.
Our gift is in the use of our values. It is in the call to justice and the messiness of digging in to complicated issues. The holiness is in the hard conversations. It is in the first steps and the last steps. Torah is meant to help us live our lives more deeply, more intentionally. Torah is not the precious vase or the unopened box, but the cozy afghan that comforts us night after night.
We can hike the mountain.
We are neither trapped under it or isolated from its peak.
So tomorrow, I will stop to buy some flowers to share with my family in honor of our eleventh anniversary. I will put them in our lovely, fancy vase so that we can see them and enjoy the beauty. We will take the tape off the box, and have cheesy delicious fondue for dinner. Gifts are not meant to stay in a box or on the mantle. The gift is not the item, but the enjoyment.
This Shavuot, find a way to explore the gift of Torah. Allow yourself to get a little messy as you interpret its words — because this is truly how we celebrate our tradition.
 “Jungle Gyms and China Shops: Durability and Fragility in Jewish Identity Formation.” Paper delivered at Association for Jewish Studies Conference, December 2008.