Today is Shavuot, the Festival during which we celebrate the giving and the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Shavuot is one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals outlined in the Torah when the Israelites were to gather all together at the Temple in Jerusalem (the other two are Sukkot and Passover). Ironically, we celebrate Shavuot this year during a pandemic that requires we do not gather together at all. It would be dangerous for us all to be together at our Temple, physically.
Fortunately, we have Plan B. We have been gathering online through Zoom. This platform, along with other video conferencing platforms have facilitated our gathering to celebrate and to mourn, to strengthen and to support one another. In preparation for the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, our ancestors did practice a form of social distancing. For three days men and women, husbands and wives were to refrain from intimate physical contact. In my own mind, in my personal Midrash, I imagine that God commands this social distancing in an effort to make the Israelites more sensitive to and aware of how important these relationships are, how much we need human contact and how much attention these relationships require.
This parallels and even amplifies what would now happen between the Israelites and God. Often, in the rabbinic literature, the events at Mt. Sinai were described as a wedding celebration of God and our ancestors that carries forward and includes each of us. The cloud of smoke that surrounded the mountain top was the Hupah and the Torah itself was the wedding ketubah.
Na’aseh v’nishmah was the vow of our ancestors under the Hupah, we will do, and we will pay attention. Not sure of what those words of Torah exactly meant, our ancestors, nevertheless signaled that they were all in. In their highly sensitized and emotional state, they were ready to commit and to establish a new relationship and enter a new reality and a new world. Na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do, and we will pay attention. A new beginning.
So it is with us. We are navigating new ways to be, new ways to be in a relationship, new ways to be a congregation, new ways to be a Jewish community of meaningful connection. Na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do, and we will pay attention.
This can seem so overwhelming and it was for our ancestors, too. Another Midrash suggests that the Israelites at the beginning of this ceremony were terrified and that all they were able to hear were the words of the very first utterance, “I am Adonai your God…” Another rabbi posited that all they actually heard was the very first word, Anochi, “I am….” Still, another rabbi taught, “All they heard was the very first letter of the very first word of the very first utterance, the Aleph.” The Aleph, of course, is silent. They heard silence and they understood, they were paying attention.
One of the features of Plan B is that only one voice can be heard. The rest of us are praying in silence as it appears to others. We cannot read in one voice as a community nor can we sing communally hearing one another. So, we must ask ourselves, “What do I hear in the silence amidst my own fear?”
My friends, the pandemic will end, and we will be able to gather in our sanctuary and in our classroom, in our social hall and in one another’s homes. Let us listen to the silence and reaffirm the vow once uttered by our ancestors: Na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do, and we will pay attention. We will do all we can for one another to keep each other safe and cared for and we will pay attention to each opportunity to feel God’s presence in the love we share with each other.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach,
Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D.