By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein, Congregation Ner Shalom
I know, I know, by now you probably have read enough about Shavuot, the holiday of Jewish revelation, that you could basically already be a member of Congregation Ner Shalom. But there’s so much to say about this joyful festival and what it represents!
Revelation at Mount Sinai
Shavuot officially celebrates what we refer to as the “Revelation at Mount Sinai” – the giving of the Ten Commandments, the first received section of Torah. The Bible tells us that the Mountain was wrapped up in smoke, and there was thunder and lightning. The ancient rabbis tell us that the people HEARD the lightning and SAW the thunder, and it was a terrifying cacophonous moment of synesthetic theophany. That is why the people said, “Yeah, ok, we agree to whatever, but please don’t make us experience this anymore!” And they sent Moses up the Mountain to receive the information on their behalf instead.
Now, many thousands of years later, the Jewish people feel it is important to imagine themselves at Mount Sinai at that critical moment. They also count themselves as among those who left slavery in Egypt and received direct instruction from the Holy One as a newly free people, and found their own moments of receiving Divine guidance.
Reform Jews, as is our affiliation at Congregation Ner Shalom, are particularly focused on studying and self-determination rather than accepting the traditions of our forebears at face value. We engage deeply with our texts, and we feel free to dissect their meanings. We may read a multitude of Midrash (rabbinical stories expounding on the parts of the Bible that are very succinct in detail or contradict other details), and we may create our own. When all that is said and done, when we’ve talked ourselves in circles and disagreed with each other and ourselves to a point of exhaustion, we decide what we truly believe, at least in that moment. We determine how all that history and tradition and Jewish law and ancient writings fit into and guide our lives today. We may even write new traditions and amend Jewish law and reinterpret ancient writings in order that we may continue to feel connected to our past, while creating a holy and just future for all Jews.
Sharing Our Stories at Ner Shalom
On the evening of Shavuot, we gathered at Congregation Ner Shalom to eat the traditional dairy dishes of blintzes and kugel, read the Ten Commandments, and to discuss our thoughts about Revelation, both as it is depicted in the Torah and how we may experience it. We recalled the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, an important and famous 20th century philosopher, as he said, “On the matter of revelation, all the Torah is itself a midrash.”
We cannot possibly put directly into words how it feels the moment that Divine inspiration strikes. The Force of the Universe is ineffable, beyond articulation. But we tried our best anyway. We shared in partners about our own moments of Divine inspiration, and some members shared back with the group at large. People talked about the moments they discovered their professional passions and talents, the moments they fell in love with their partners, the moments they decided to pursue conversion to Judaism. We learned that revelation can take many forms, and none are more or less sacred than others. May they bring each of us purpose and peace, and allow us to carry our traditions onward toward a healed and holy future.
Lizz Goldstein is the rabbi at Congregation Ner Shalom in Woodbridge, the only synagogue in Prince William County. She resides in Vienna and also works to build Jewish community among millennial activists in the D.C. area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through nershalomva.org/