When I grew up, I spent every summer at URJ Camp Harlam, my summer home. I vividly remember driving through the gate and seeing that under the name was the following line calling camp, “an Institute for Living Judaism.”
Dynamic, living, breathing, changing and filled with life, that is what each summer brought and where my Jewish soul was nurtured and developed. I learned through camp, the communities I have been blessed to serve and through my family that Judaism is a living tradition, and the breath of life we add is our responsibility and gift.
In this week’s Torah portion, we hear more about our living tradition. We read, “You stand this day all of you before the Lord your God … And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath. But with the one who stands here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with the one who is not here with us this day” (Deuteronomy 29:9-14).
I have always loved this text. All the people united to receive revelation together.
Perhaps its power is why, many years ago, on a very cold night I climbed the mountain some claim is Mount Sinai. I wanted to feel for even a moment what that experience was like. It turns out all I felt was cold and tired as I watched the sun rise that morning. Torah is not waiting at the top of a mountain for us.
How do we find our connection?
The sages of our tradition teach that each person who stood at Sinai heard God’s voice in a unique and special way.
Midrash Tanchuma teaches:
• The voice of God at Mount Sinai was understood each with their own ability.
• The old heard it through their ability to understand.
• The young understood it through their ability.
• Even Moses understood the voice at Sinai with his unique ability.
There is so much that is beautiful about this sentiment. There is no single way to understand revelation, and wherever we may be in our own journey we hear something special. We hear Torah through the lens of our experience or innocence, and we hear Torah in the place we happen to be standing at the time.
Torah and, by extension, our tradition is very much ours to perceive and hold; it does not belong to any one person or group. There is power in connecting with others. After all, revelation is not simply a singular experience.
Even more importantly, revelation refers not only to a singular moment but rather to an ongoing experience. For us, the Torah is not received in a limited time or in a singular Sinai explosion. We still hear, and are still called to listen to the echoes of revelation across time.
This communal address from Moses is a reminder that our covenant includes those who stood at that historical moment and all of us. Sinai is now. We don’t stand alone as we struggle with our lives and Torah. Rather, we stand side-by-side with those in the present and from the past.
I think of the B’nai Mitzvah ceremony when we celebrate by passing the Torah from one generation to the next. What will you do with the Torah to make it yours? What will you do to perpetuate our values and be a link in the chain of time?
Torah and revelation are not a “birth”right but, instead, a “live”right. It is our inheritance, in every moment we choose how to engage. The past is only a prologue for the story that we never stop writing.
Revelation is not limited in time or place. That is why it is not physically associated with a particular geographic mountain for our community. We don’t limit it to a single location or experience.
As we reflect on our Sinai moment, we see our choice to live a life in harmony with Jewish values. And we stand there again and again every year and at every moment. Our Jewish life is not about being, but instead about doing. We are never finished receiving Torah and must open ourselves up to that transitional moment over and over again.
The second-to-last verse in the parasha makes it clear what God wants us to choose: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life.”
Life in this context is Torah, our values, our customs, laws and commandments.
As we stand at this very moment at Sinai, side-by-side generations of our people, we recognize our predecessors cannot choose for us. We must choose, you must choose, what our time of connection and revelation looks like as we form our link in the chain of our Jewish heritage.
Rabbi Peter Rigler is the rabbi of Temple Sholom in Broomall. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.