We Need the Torah…and the Torah Needs Us Too

Shavuot, the second of the three pilgrimage festivals, commemorates God’s revelation to the Jewish People at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah.  Several commentaries note that the Ten Commandments, which are at the heart of the revelation, are addressed in the singular.  Why?  Two reasons are given.  First, so that each person should think that he is personally responsible for upholding the Torah’s teachings.  Second, because each person can and should hear God’s voice in a personal way and craft a unique relationship with the Divine.  The Kabbalists taught that there was no spoken Revelation at all.  Rather than proclaiming the Ten Commandments in a booming voice, the ancient mystics said that God spoke only the first letter of the first word of the first commandment.  That was the letter “aleph,” which produces no sound at all.  Standing at the foot of the mountain, the Kabbalists said, each of the Israelites heard God’s voice in their head.  So it is with each of us—we each hear and understand God in a deeply private and individual way.

Taking this idea a step further, Rabbi Yitzchak ben Yaakov Alfasi (1013-1103, Morocco) taught that not only must each person cultivate a personal relationship with the Divine, but the Torah only reaches its potential when it is received and interpreted by many different types of people.  He wrote:

Our rabbis said:  Had only one of the Israelites been absent, the Torah would not have been given.  It is for this reason that the Torah was given to 600,000 people.  It was the will of the Holy Blessed One that the Torah be accepted by all factions, and the 600,000 people who stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai included all factions and opinions.

Rabbi Alfasi remarkably taught that the Revelation could not have taken place had even a single person from the community of Israelites been absent.  That is because every single person’s opinion was necessary to make the Torah into a living, relevant document.

I understand Rabbi Alfasi’s teaching to be innovative and urgent.  Not only is each person free to craft a personal understanding of God, but the Torah itself, which reflects Divine wisdom and insight, becomes stronger and more authentic when its passages are subject to many different interpretations and opinions.

Those who arrogantly believe that they alone know God’s truth, those who claim to exclusively hear the authentic voice of God, and especially all those who seek to impose their views on others because they think they have special knowledge of how God wants human beings to behave, should carefully read the words of Rabbi Alfasi.  The voice of God is heard differently by every human being, and God’s Torah thrives only when it is interpreted by many factions and subject to many opinions.  No one has a monopoly on God’s truth.

Judaism holds that we need the Torah.  But Rabbi Alfasi cleverly reminds us that the Torah needs us too.

I hope that you will join us for our Shavuot celebrations.

  • 8:30 PM. One Text…Three Faiths: “A Triangle of Love: How Jews, Muslims and Christians View Abraham, Sarah and Hagar.”  On Shavuot eve, learn a text revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The evening will begin with refreshments and worship. Rabbi Cooper, Pastor Brenda Wheeler Ehlers from Morrow Memorial Methodist Church, and Imam Daud Haqq of the National Islamic Association Masjid will teach and lead a discussion on what their respective faith groups learn from these sacred texts.
    • 9:45 AM Morning Service for the First Day of Shavuot.  We will celebrate as Jason Vaidman (the grandson of Nancy Lorre) becomes a Bar Mitzvah.
    • 11:15 AM Shavuot Katan/Gadol (with Miss Vivian). For kids ages 0-8.
    • 9:00 PM Evening Service for the Second Day of Shavuot
    • 9:45 AM Morning Service for the Second Day of Shavuot.  Our Yizkor service will be accompanied by a professional violinist to create a moving and beautiful tribute to our lost loved ones.


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