Behar 5784

This week’s parasha, Behar, begins with these words: “God spoke to Moses Behar Sinai” (at Mount Sinai). Next week’s parasha, Bechukotai, concludes with the words; “These are the mitzvot God gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai.” Interestingly, the Torah never enumerates the number of mitzvot nor lists in any form of legal code what they are. In fact, the statement there are 613 mitzvot comes from only one passage in the Talmud. And the codified lists (which agree predominantly but not totally with each other) only appear in the Middle Ages. Accordingly, we can see the tradition which begins in the Torah expands and transforms greatly in the rabbinic age after the destruction of the Second Temple and exile that followed. Following in that tradition, we need to explore what the concept of “God speaking at Sinai”, or revelation, means to us, both in intent and content.

The development of the tradition is clearly seen in the ritual we undertake at this time of counting the Omer. Last week’s parasha, Emor, teaches that the Omer was connected to the spring harvest, being brought at the harvesting of the first sheaf of the harvest and leading to the celebration seven weeks later of the first fruits of the harvest. Much later, the rabbinic tradition establishes Shavuot as the celebration of the giving of Torah at Sinai, thus forming a meaningful bond between Pesach and Shavuot and transforming the ritual of counting of the Omer. This bond teaches that our freedom from slavery was for the explicit purpose to serve God through Torah. But what was actually spoken “at Mount Sinai” and when it was communicated remains a matter of conversation even within the rabbinic tradition.

For millennia we have had many different understandings of what really was the experience of Mt. Sinai, which we celebrate at Shavuot. For some, it means the giving of the entire Torah and its mitzvot, including all the oral traditions of interpretation. For others, it refers specifically to the ten commandments only. For others, it is the core values insisted on by our prophets, such as when we when we hear the words of the prophet Micah, “what is it that God asks of you, but to pursue justice, act with lovingkindness and walk humbly with God” or put on the tefillin and recite the words of Hosea, “I betroth you to me in faithfulness, with justice and law, with lovingkindness and compassion.” This prophecy from Hosea is the one always read before Shavuot, and, like Micah, guides us to those core principles taught “Behar Sinai”.

This year we live in the most challenging and complex times for Jews around the world and our brothers and sisters in the land of Israel. Each of us must consider how to keep faith with God, understood as the creator of all that connects one and all, and now more than ever how to balance justice and law with lovingkindness and compassion. Tradition teaches that all of us stood at Mount Sinai; it calls upon each of us to internalise the words we heard and act accordingly.

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