Shabbat Evening Service
From the desk of Rabbi David Lyon
In Torah this week, we read the Ten Commandments as part of the whole story of the giving of the Law to the Israelites. The Tablets of the Law were given in the wilderness of Sinai; not in a private exclusive setting, but in a public place. They weren’t even given in the territory of one particular Tribe of Israel. Had it been given in a private place, perhaps by invitation only, we wouldn’t have been surprised. As sacred as it was, the Law deserved the “red carpet” treatment. But, in fact, the Law was given in public where everyone was welcome to receive it. Why?
The Rabbis teach, “In order that the [other] nations of the world should not have an excuse and say, ‘Because it was given in Israel’s land; therefore we did not accept it.’” Had it been given in the land of the Israelites, they would have known it wasn’t for them. In a public place, there was no exclusive title to God’s Law and no excuse not to consider its sacred value.
Another explanation teaches, “To avoid causing disagreements among the tribes.” Otherwise, one might have said, “In my territory the Torah was given.” Can you imagine the sense of entitlement that would have been assumed by the tribe in whose land the Law was given? There would be no peace. Each of the twelve tribes was blessed for its particular gifts and contributions to the community.
Public space was open to all who gathered to receive Torah. From tribal heads to water drawer, God sealed the covenant with them all. There they said in one voice, “Na’aseh v’nishmah” we will faithfully obey all that God commanded. A closer look at their commitment reveals that first they said “Na’aseh” which means “we will do”. Then they said “nishmah” we will hear (understand/obey). There’s nothing else in the world we’re permitted to do before we understand it; not medicine, law, psychiatry, architecture, etc. Only here do we learn that we can participate in God’s Law without first having to understand all that it means. The rabbis concluded, therefore, “The understanding comes through the doing.”
The faithful commitment of our ancestors who said “na’aseh v’nishma” literally described what would be the curriculum of Jewish education for generations upon generations of Jewish learners. Do it, we were ordered by our teachers, and you’ll understand it later. It left many generations of Jewish learners baffled by what they were commanded to do by their teachers and parents as they ached for greater understanding. Even down to recent times, the struggle in Jewish religious schools often reflected the slow and often agonizing exercise of doing without understanding. Separating from long-held educational models tied to a covenantal system from Mount Sinai wasn’t easy. It would take the innovations of a late 19th century and early 20th century American secular school model and the insights of leaders in Jewish education like Samson Benderly and Emanuel Gamoran before change would come.
Samson Benderly was known for his goals to professionalize Jewish educators through formalized training, professional organizations, and increased wages. Only the best were branded as Benderly’s Boys, and only they could assume the role of leading the way in Jewish education in America. Emanuel Gamoran, though not Reform, was hired by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC), now known as the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), to invest Reform Jewish education with greater depth and breadth of Jewish learning. Though more than half a century has passed since they first made their contributions to Jewish education, their influence is still felt in what we aim to do, today. Incidentally, Gamoran’s son, Hillel, was my rabbi in the Chicago suburbs.
At Congregation Beth Israel, no one is denied entry into our school and synagogue for lack of knowledge. One’s willingness to participate, grow and experience Jewish life with us is the only prerequisite. Next is one’s personal commitment to support our shared goal to increase Jewish life in worship, education and community. True to the days when our ancestors stood at Sinai, all are welcome to come and learn; and all are welcome to do all that’s necessary for us to be a sacred community dedicated to our people’s highest values that originate in Torah.