I was ordained 24 years ago.
Two days after I became a rabbi, my father went in for open heart surgery. Just a couple of days later was Shavuot. I remember feeling numb. Ordination was meant to be its own Sinai moment, a moment of spiritual connection and significance, and the holiday when we literally stand again at Sinai was right on its heels. But instead of standing at Sinai, instead of focusing on my spirituality, I was consumed with standing in the intensity of my dad’s surgery and the Yale New Haven Hospital. Thankfully the surgery went well and over time so did the healing.
It took a while for me to process everything, but eventually I came to understand that I had in fact had my Sinai moment—it was just a very different one than I had expected. I received a Torah of life’s fragility. I received a Torah of stepping into a caregiving role rather than a receiving one. I learned an enormous amount about myself and my family. Though it wasn’t the Torah I had wanted or expected, it was the Torah I received. Lightening and thunder, fear and awe.
In the fall of 2019, I began teaching the work of the Esh Kodesh (“Holy Fire”), Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, otherwise known as the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto. As the world began to shut down in March 2020, my class and I continued studying his teachings week by week. While in no way was the COVID-19 pandemic anything close to what the Esh Kodesh experienced from 1939-1942, I marveled at and took strength from his commitment to teach in the midst of the fury. Torah and God were his salvation.
This is an excerpt from his teaching for Shavuot (June 12, 1940):
At the giving of Torah, God spoke to them, and connected Godself to them, it was the essence of the Speaker connecting with them. It was the very essence of “I” in the phrase “I am Adonai your God.” The Hebrew word for “I” in the first of the Ten Commandments is “Anochi” rather than “Ani.” “Anochi” is an Aramaic acrostic, reading “Ani Nafshai Katavit Yahvit,” “I My Soul have Written and Given.” God has, so to speak, written and given God’s Soul. “My soul,” so to speak, is revealed to the Jewish people through the Torah that God taught us.
The Esh Kodesh goes on to write that on Shavuot, the anniversary of the giving of the Torah–as well as whenever we learn Torah—it is a time of salvation. Sinai was the paradigmatic experience of God teaching us Torah and of the offering of God’s soul to us through the words of Torah. I felt that connection profoundly during those early months of the pandemic: The Esh Kodesh searched for and experienced God’s presence through the Torah, and his Torah became a bit of my own salvation in those very unsettling times.
This winter and spring, I have been teaching Dirshuni: Contemporary Women’s Midrash. The midrashim are written in the traditional midrashic form but are authored by Israeli women. Each week in the course, as we encounter another midrash, I am astounded by the experience of standing at Sinai again. The Oral Torah is unfolding right before me—a subversive Torah. It is a Torah that pokes and prods at the tradition using its own language in order to bring more dignity, healing, and wholeness to the unfinished story of the Torah.
Standing at Sinai is never the same. Sometimes the Torah we learn and receive is unexpected and sometimes it’s unwanted. Sometimes the Torah we learn and receive gives us strength in the most challenging of times and allows us to feel a deep connection with God. It is our refuge and our salvation. And sometimes the Torah we receive is our very hope. If holy texts can continue to be written and the voices of the most marginalized can come to the fore and be liberated from oppression and heal what was broken, redemption is possible.
I don’t know what lies in store for each of us individually or all of us collectively as we receive Torah anew this evening of Shavuot and on all the days that follow. But perhaps we might touch a little of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s experience of Sinai:
There are moments in which heaven and earth kiss each other, in which there is a lifting of the veil at the horizon of the known, opening a vision of what is eternal in time. Some of us have at least once experienced the momentous realness of God. Some of us have at least caught a glimpse of the beauty, peace, and power that flow through the souls of those who are devoted to God. There may come a moment like thunder in the soul, when humans are not only aided, not only guided by God’s mysterious hand, but also taught how to aid, how to guide other beings. The voice of Sinai goes on forever: “These words God spoke unto all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud and of the thick darkness, with a great voice that goes on forever.”
May we all be a part of that forever.