Hinneinu – Here we are, over nine weeks into the coronavirus crisis lockdown, unable to gather together in the synagogue. We have managed very well with our streamed services, but today, as we mark Shavuot, the fact that we are unable to congregate acquires an additional and deeper poignancy. Jewish teaching puts a major emphasis on community: the Israelites, who fled slavery in Egypt, together with the erev rav, the ‘mixed multitude’ that made the dash to freedom with them, became a community, the people Israel, when they stood at the foot of Mount Sinai.
The people Israel. Often referred to as kol adat b’nei Yisrael: ‘the entire congregation of the Israelites’. Reading Torah, similar phrases are repeated, reminding us of this collective entity that discovered what it meant to be a people as they wandered for forty years through the wilderness.
The people moved together, acted together. But the Book of B’midbar, Numbers, which we began reading last Shabbat, draws our attention, again and again, to the individuals that made up the people. From the opening verses that list the names of the leaders of the twelve tribes onwards, a host of individuals, and with their names and their stories – or at least, some of their stories. We encounter the individuals whose stories stand out.
In next week’s parashah, B’ha’alot’cha, at Numbers chapter 12, we gain an insight into the eldest of the sibling leaders of the Exodus, Miriam, who barely appears in the Torah, and whose name is only mentioned for the first time, following the crossing of the Sea of Reeds on dry land, back in parashah B’shallach at Exodus chapter 15. There, in two short verses that focus on Miriam leading the women in dances with timbrels and song, we learn three particular things about her: her name, that she is designated as the sister of Aaron, and that she is a prophet, n’vi’ah. But then, Miriam disappears completely from the narrative, until she turns up in an extraordinary chapter that kicks off a series of portions, in which the names of individuals are at the heart of each story.
And so, in parashat B’ha’alot’cha, Miriam – and to a lesser extent Aaron – challenge their younger brother’s exclusive relationship with the Eternal. Then, in the next parashah, Sh’lach L’cha, we discover that of the twelve tribal leaders sent out to reconnoitre the land beyond the Jordan, Joshua and Caleb alone show courage and determination. Finally, in the parashah that follows, Korach, who gives his name to the portion, the first cousin of the sibling leaders, along with Datan, Aviram and On, the leaders of the tribe of Reuben, foment rebellion against Moses and Aaron with the words: ‘You take too much upon yourselves, for all the congregation, all of them, are holy, and the Eternal One is in their midst; so why do you lift yourselves above the assembly of the Eternal One.’
Ki chol-ha-eidah, kullam k’doshim – ‘For all the congregation, all of them are holy’. With these words, the rebels assert not that the congregation as a collectivity is holy, but that all of them – each and every member of the congregation – is holy. Throughout the Torah, the people, the congregation, is referred to in the singular. Most of us will be familiar with the principal statement of Jewish belief: Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Elohein, Adonai echad – ‘Listen! Israel: The Eternal is our God; the Eternal is one.’ Listen! – Sh’ma! is a second person singular imperative. Again, and again and again: Israel; a single entity.
But then, at key moments, the singular ‘you’, becomes plural – which brings me back to the festival we are celebrating today, Shavuot, ‘Weeks’, reinvented by the early Rabbis as z’man matan Torateinu – ‘the season of the giving of our Torah‘. We read in the parashah, Yitro, in the opening verses of Exodus 19, prior to the account of the Divine Revelation on Mount Sinai:
Thus, you should say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I have done to Egypt, and how I lifted you up on eagle’s wings and I brought you to Myself. And now therefore, if you indeed listen to My voice and you keep My covenant, then you will be to me a treasure from among all the peoples, for all the Earth is Mine’.
The ‘you‘ addressed is plural: ‘You have seen’ … ‘I lifted you up’ … ‘I brought you‘ … ‘If you indeed listen … ‘and you keep’… ‘you will be’ … And then, the aseret ha-dibbrot, ‘the ten utterances’, better known by the Christian designation, ‘the Ten Commandments’, that follow in chapter 20 are all couched in the singular you: in this moment of encounter with the Divine, all the ‘yous’ addressed in the plural become a single ‘you’: the people.
And yet, crucially, the scene of Revelation concludes at the end of the next parashah, Mishpatim, which details a code of mishpatim – laws – with the sealing of the covenant with the people that once again acknowledges their plurality:
Moses took the book of the covenant and read in the ears of the people, and they said, ‘all that the Eternal One has spoken we will do and we will listen’– Va-yom’ru: kol asher-dibbeir Adonai, na’aseh v’nishma.
The people entered the covenant with the Eternal as a community together, but the obligation to keep the covenant rested – and rests – on each individual. We will act. We will continue to listen. Each one of us.
And so, we read at the beginning of parashat Nitzavim, in Deuteronomy chapter 29, in a narrative set at the end of the forty years of wandering, we find a statement addresses to the generation who did not stand at Mount Sinai. A preamble to their entry into the covenant, it begins:
You are stationed today, all of you, before the Eternal your God.
Attem nitzavim ha-yom, kul’ chem lifnei Adonai Eliheichem.
You – plural – are stationed – plural – all of you – plural – before the Eternal your God – plural.
Needless to say, for all the plurality of the plural ‘you’, it is in the masculine plural – just as the singular ‘you’ is in the masculine singular. The Torah is written by men, and addresses men. Nevertheless, as we read the Torah today for ourselves in the context of our own lives, we can include ourselves, our diverse selves in all our diverse genders in that plurality. Interestingly, this week’s parashah, Naso, acknowledges that it was not only men who felt addressed by the call to commitment. We learn in Numbers chapter 6  that individual women as well as individual men, would take it upon themselves to consecrate themselves to the Eternal, by explicitly uttering a vow of consecration – neder nazir – to set themselves apart for the Eternal. The adoption of the neder nazir required each individual concerned to take it upon themselves to abstain from drinking wine and any other intoxicant, let their hair grow, and refrain from any contact with a dead person, even their father, or mother, or siblings.
Significantly, while the Torah reading set aside for Shavuot, aseret ha-dibbrot, ‘the ten utterances’, emphasises the singularity of the people, another scriptural text that is read on Shavuot, focuses on the individual. The early rabbis set aside five books from K’tuvim, the ‘Writings’, the concluding third section of the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible, for reading as separate scrolls on five particular dates in the calendar. The most well-known of these five books or ‘five scrolls’ – chameish m’gillot – is the Book of Esther, read on Purim. The Book of Ruth, read at Shavuot, relates how a Moabite woman, following the death of her husband, decided to leave her home and go with her mother-in-law Naomi to Judah. That Ruth made this choice was remarkable enough. She also gave voice to her choice. Ruth’s declaration to Naomi is one of the most powerful passages in the whole of the TaNaKh, and, arguably, the most beautiful and heart-felt expression of commitment ever articulated. We read in chapter 1:
Entreat me not to leave you, and return from following after you; for wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God, my God; / where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried; thus, shall the Eternal One do to me, and more also, if anything but death parts me from you.
It may seem paradoxical that the covenant between the Eternal One and the people Israel is at its heart a commitment made by each and every individual. Of course, the marking of the transition from childhood to adulthood tells us this: at the age of 13 for boys, and, traditionally 12 for girls, an individual commits themselves to the mitzvot, the commandments. In Progressive communities that commitment is taken on by the bar or bat mitzvah on equal terms at the age of 13, and in this particular progressive community, Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, the option of b’mitzvah, ensures that gender equality also encompasses gender inclusion. The reality is that even in an intensely, communally-focused community, everything comes down to the individual and the choices each of us makes.
Having distinguished between texts that use the singular texts that use the plural, there is a particular passage in the Torah, couched in the singular, which clearly addresses, not the singular people, but the individual. It’s one of my favourite Torah teachings, so I make no apology for sharing it once again. We read in parashat Nitzavim, Deuteronomy chapter 30:
For this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too wonderful for you, nor too remote. / It is not in heaven that you need to say, ‘who will go up for and fetch it for us that we may hear it and do it?’ / And it’s not across the sea, that you need to say, ‘who will cross the sea for us and fetch it for us that we may hear it and do it?’ / Rather, ha-davar is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.
I have not translated ha-davar because it can be translated in at least two ways – as ‘the word’ and as ‘the matter’. Ha-davar; the word, the matter – and, in our current context of such great uncertainty, perhaps, the guidance we seek. The verses tell us that ha-davar is not remote from us; it is held within us; in our mouths and in our hearts. We are not re-enacting a glorious spectacle today. However much our imaginations may be stimulated and engaged by the images of the quaking mountain shrouded in cloud and smoke and fire. We recall the dramatic events of Mount Sinai back then in order to inhabit as fully as possible this moment, right now.
So: Hinneinu – Here we are. Of course, we aren’t actually here together. But each of us, wherever we are and whatever our particular circumstances, has chosen to log on and to connect; to be in this moment together, although we are physically apart. May each of us find courage and inspiration in this shared moment to commit ourselves to the Eternal and to one another. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
30 May 2020 – 7 Sivan 5780
See, e.g., K’doshim, Leviticus 19:2. ↑
B’shallach, Exodus 15:21-21. ↑
Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 13-15. ↑
Korach, Numbers 16:3. ↑
Va-etchannan, Deuteronomy 6:4. ↑
Yitro, Exodus 19: 3-5. ↑
Mishpatim, Exodus 24:7. ↑
Nitzavim, Deuteronomy 29:92. ↑
Naso, Numbers 6:1-21. ↑
TaNaKh: Torah, N’vi’im (Prophets), K’tuvim (Writings). ↑
Arranged in the TaNaKh in the order of reading, the other books are: Shir ha- Shirim, the Songs of Songs read at Pesach, Rut, Ruth, read at Shavuot, Eichah, Lamentations, read at Tishah B’Av, and Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, read at Sukkot. ↑
Ruth 1:16-17. ↑
Nitzavim, Deut. 30:11-14. ↑