Finding Our Way to the Mountain of God

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
June 10, 2016 / 4 Sivvan, 5776

It was the first Shavuot since I had rediscovered Jewish living. 

The previous September, a friend and I spent Rosh Hashanah on the large rocks outside the remains of Sutro Baths. At the end of the 19th century, the Baths had been a large complex of salt water swimming pools. In its heyday, it was impressive enough, that Thomas Edison is purported to have filmed the functioning baths in 1897.

By 1998, a few concrete foundation walls and scattered steps were the sole evidence of what once was. But off to the side, my friend and I sat on large boulders absorbing the tumult and spray from the ocean waves. The Pacific’s arrhythmic pulse lulled me into hours of reflection. It was an appropriate way to mark the first Rosh Hashanah I had observed in a decade. There in a place of ruins, something new began to build in me.

That same November, I attended a large scale Hanukkah celebration in Noe Valley, San Francisco at a Renewal congregation. Then Shabbat after Shabbat, synagogue. It was a surprising, an unexpected turn. I was one of the fortunate Jews who had abandoned and then found a way back to Judaism after  years of journeying and seeking.

Of course, that’s a funny turn of phrase. The Judaism that began to unfold for me as an adult was not some “back” that I was reclaiming, but a new encounter. Yes, it was beholden to a childhood reared in a highly committed family; yes, during a break in college I had stumbled into a black hat yeshivah. Still, this was a Judaism established on my own terms. For a young American, that was probably a requirement.

As the year turned, each new holiday held out anticipation and reward. By late spring, there was a communal Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all night rave of Jewish learning being held at the Berkeley JCC. Berkeley’s intimate size encouraged Jews of all stripes to gather and learn Torah from one another. Each session, each teacher presented powerful insights from our ancient tradition.

And then a red haired chasid in a bekeshte, a long black coat, stood up. He began lisping softly at first, his two hearing aids hinting at the effort mastering speech must have taken. He talked of how the people had become divided and disjointed during their long desert years. A sort of soul loneliness prevented them from connecting or really seeing their neighbor’s perspective. Suddenly, Sinai loomed. That mattered. A feeling began to spread over the people, reminding them of their essential achdut, their unity as they drew near the foot of the mountain. Fear will do that sometime, will make you realize that we are all in it together.

Everyone was there, the chasid began to exclaim, his cheeks turning as ruddy as his hair, his voice growing in power. Lightning, thunder, God’s reverberating call. Looking around the room in the Berkeley JCC, it was true. Everyone was there, from atheist to true believer. We weren’t just learning about Sinai, we were reliving it.

Then, almost shouting, the man began to jump up and down, demonstrating how God ripped the mountain off its base, inverted it so that the peak was pointing over our heads and told us, “if you accept the Torah and its commandments, well it will be with you; but if not, this moment will be your death.” As if to prove his point, the chasid slammed one fist into his waiting hand, demonstrating God dropping the mountain upon the nation. With a sense of common purpose–primarily a desire to avoid getting squashed by a pointy mountain–the people consented, and the rest, they say, is history.

It was my first time hearing that well-known midrash. Told with such feeling, one couldn’t help but be moved. I was mesmerized. Ever since, Shavuot has held a special place in my heart.

More than anything, the methods of Jewish learning are virtually without parallel in world thought. Jewish learning mixes the sublime and the absurd, the practical and the mystical, the far fetched and the realistic. It is open to nuance, interpretation. It forces you to think in ways that you never came across in university, and often concludes without addressing the central problem it raises.

For example, if God threatened to crush us with a mountain, clearly we didn’t have much free will when we accepted the Torah. So how can we be bound by the Torah if we didn’t freely accept it as authoritative over our lives? The question lurks in plain sight, demanding an answer. Yet the midrash’s author didn’t feel a responsibility to answer it for us. It’s our job to solve that problem in a way that we find compelling. The reader plays an active part in all Jewish learning. We learn together, we find answers on our own.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot

This Saturday night, Neveh Shalom will host its annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot, beginning with some noshes at 8:00 pm. I am excited by our varied line-up.

Session One (9:00-9:45)

During our first 45 minute session, we will hear the story of Mt. Sinai told two ways. Rabbi Posen will hold a session on “How the Mountain Influences Our Receiving of Torah.” Simultaneously, our new communications and marketing person, Brian Rohr will approach this same topic through storytelling. Brian is a skilled, professional storyteller, and we are fortunate that he is sharing his talents with us.

Session Two (10:15-11:00)

After an essential cheese cake break, learning will continue. Rabbi Isaak will unpack the Book of Ruth for us, looking at themes as diverse as forbidden love, the Moabite people, and inheritance. If the later time of session two feels more like the witching hour to you, head over to hear David Feder, a fine scholar and new addition to our Portland community. He’ll carry you into a moving Talmudic tale of witchcraft and rabbinic savvy.

Session Three (11:15-Midnight)

For the diehards. If anyone is still in the building, I’ll be bringing some deliciously rich Talmudic stories about dignity as we see the care with which our Sages instructed us about how to treat others.

I hope you’ll find your way to CNS this Saturday night. Feel free to come for whatever part pulls you and stay as long–or as short–as you desire. It will be a lot of fun.

See you at the mountain,

Rav D

Torah Sparks Commentary will return next week.

Listen to recordings from our past few services here