Shavuot 5777

Rabbi René Pfertzel, 30 May 2017

Jewish continuity has always hinged on uttered and written words, on expanding maze of interpretations, debates, and disagreements, and on a unique human rapport. In synagogue, at school, and most of it at home, it has always involved two or three generations deep in conversation. Ours is not a bloodline but a textline1.

According to the rabbinic tradition, it all started at Mount Sinai: “Moses received Torah from Sinai, and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets. And the Prophets handed it on to the Members of the Great Assembly” (Pirkei Avot 1:1, translation from Siddur Lev Chadash). Our tradition is first and foremost is made up of words: the creative words of the Eternal, the admonition words of the Prophets, the dialogical words of Biblical and Talmudic characters, the poetic words of the Psalmist and other Jewish poets. These words are uttered, interpreted, and transmitted from a generation to the other. On Shabbat morning, we read and leyn the words of Torah. During our services, we read, listen, and sing the words of the prayer book, words from Torah and words created by the Rabbis. We read the words of others, but we can also pray with our own words. Each human being has the capacity to combine the letters of the Aleph Bet (or alphabet) to translate his/her personal thoughts into a communication channel to express deep feelings and to reach out to the others.

Shavuot is the festival of a received tradition at Mount Sinai, made up with words that together create a common language, our language, but also the language of all humanity. “Why wasn’t Torah given in the land of Israel”, asks the Midrash? So the nations of the world should not have an excuse or saying, ‘Because it was given in Israel’s land, we have not accepted it’. Another reason: to avoid causing dissension amongst the tribe, lest one may have said, ‘In my territory Torah was given’. Therefore, Torah was given in the desert, publicly and openly, in a place belonging to no one”2.

The word of God is universal. This does not refer to the particular laws and customs that define the Jewish people as different, such as laws of kashrut or what Spinoza called “the ceremonial laws”. The Torah universalism resides in its ethics. Ethics is the common denominator for all humanity, and does not require giving up on particularism. It is what enables us to live together in a balanced society.

Words have meaning. They carry weight. With words has the Eternal created the world. With words, we can help our children to grow; we can express our love, emotions, and worries. Words, others’, or ours can cure us. Unfortunately, words have equally the power to kill. Such are the words the Manchester bomber has heard before going to the Arena and spreading death and horror.

Tuesday night, we will celebrate the gift of Torah, a set of rules that define our world, but we will also acknowledge the creative power of words.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my redeemer”.

Chag Sameach

1 Amos Oz & Fania Oz-Salzberger, Jews and Words, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2012, p. 1
2 Mechilta de Rabbi Ishmael, Exodus 20:2
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