Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, June 3, 2022 / 4 Sivan 5782
Summary: On Saturday night, the festival of Shavuot begins. This week’s Oasis Songs looks at an ancient midrash that points out the moral difference a small group of people can have on their society. In another week of gun-violence, we can all stand to be reminded that our actions matter, for good or bad.
Reading Time: Five minutes
Tomorrow night the holiday of Shavuot begins. Shavuot commemorates matan Torah, the day on which God gave the Torah to the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai. The mountain shook and thundered while the people heard the sights and saw the sounds. The term for this is synesthesia, when one sense is perceived through another. We now know that two to four percent of people are synesthetes, individuals who regularly have this sort of sensory experience. Why this is so remains a matter of scientific speculation; I’ll return to that in a bit, but what is important from the Torah’s narrative is that an entire nation had a heightened experience of revelation that was different from their everyday life. Perhaps the Torah is using a metaphor so that those of us who did not experience direct revelation would have a sense of what a unique moment this was.
It seems fair to conclude that while mystical experiences historically have been limited to a small portion of the population, here the entire nation received the Torah while encountering God. Mystical experiences are like peak moments in our lives; they are infrequent and often change the direction of our lives by providing the recipients with new insights or driving home the importance of older understandings.
Take the Ten Commandments for instance. Most of its teachings, especially the interpersonal ones, seem self-evident to us. Don’t murder. Don’t break trust with your partner through an act of adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. They are what our Sages called mishpatim, laws that anyone could uncover through reason. In other words, you don’t need God to tell you not to murder. Yet here we are at the foot of Mt. Sinai in our yearly cycle, and while Moses will bring down the entire Torah, scripture emphasizes a series of commandments that we don’t need God to teach us. Why is this?
There’s an ancient midrash that opens with a parable. A king planted an orchard with rows of grapevines, pomegranates, apple trees, and fig trees. A gardener was put in charge of the orchard, and the king went away. On his return, he found it overgrown with thistles and thorns. For a moment, he considered razing it to the ground, but as he stood there overlooking his weed-choked garden, he spied a rose-colored lily within. Moved by its beauty, the king decided to spare the entire orchard.
The midrash continues by noting that the entire world was only created for the sake of Torah—that the purpose of creation is for noble and ethical reasons. But after twenty-six generations, when God looked out at the world, all that could be seen were fouled, muddy waters. As God prepared to destroy the world, however, behold, there was the people Israel, like a lily. Moved by their potential to bring Torah to the world, God chose to save the world and presented us with the aseret ha-divbrot, the ten speech acts or commandments.
What is of interest here is not the triumphalism of the Jewish people. Many cultures have origin stories that put themselves in the center. It is not unusual to want to feel special. Rather, the point of this midrash is that even obvious teachings that don’t need God, like “you shall not murder,” are difficult to abide by. This week, we have moved from shooting in elementary schools to shooting in hospitals. We may know that murder is wrong, but don’t expect that to stop an angry young man with a high-powered assault rifle. And let’s not get into “you shall not steal.” That’s probably a commandment that every person alive has broken at some point, even if it was restricted to snatching a classmate’s cookie when we were young.
At a time of social unrest, it’s worth asking, “What is required for people to do the right thing and to live up to some pretty basic social covenants to which we all pay lip service?” Some people will say a more just society. Others will argue for better parenting and education. Motivating people to perform takes many forms and different people need different motivations. Everyone has a pet theory, so here’s another.
In all this, is there also room for revelation, for peak experiences that remind us to do the right thing in such a heightened manner that the lessons remain in the front of our awareness?
Scientists aren’t fully certain why the synesthesia gene wasn’t eliminated by natural selection, but they do have some interesting data. Synesthetes tend to be more creative than the normal population, counting a high percentage of artists with this condition. There also appear to be gains in memory and sensory awareness. Synesthetes appear to have heightened awareness. Maybe the Sinai moment, as the Torah depicts it, is designed to create particularly morally-sensitive people.
It may take some time before the science is nailed down, but as Shavuot comes, it is intriguing to take the above midrash seriously. Maybe the world needs a select group of people to remind it of the lessons it already knows. Our tradition imagines that that is the role of the Jews; I don’t feel fully comfortable with this, not because it reeks of chosenness, but because I know so many morally remarkable people from all backgrounds. Simultaneously, we ought to recognize the remarkable contributions that we have made. Despite the small number of Jews, we have made contributions to the greater good that far exceeds our population.
What is clear is that when we encounter morally exceptional people, we are encouraged to act better, to restrain our worst impulses, to do the right thing. Our society needs these gifted people more than ever.
As we enter the festival of Shavuot, may we all imagine ourselves to be part of that select group for whom God saved the world—people who know that it is wrong to steal and refrain from theft while simultaneously being a moral example for those around them. May we work for the gift of enhanced sensitivity. Shavuot reminds us to be the change.
Shabbat Table Talk
As we enter the festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah, it might be interesting to discuss what Torah means to you and how you incorporate it into your life.
Links for Sensible Gun Control: IP-17 and IP-18.
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