Parsha Behar-Bechukotai May 8, 2010 24 Iyar 5770 D'var Torah given by Hannah Pasternak
B’reshut Khvod HaRav-
I am standing here before you this morning, my mind swirling with thoughts about the parasha. With this morning’s reading, we concluded the Book of Vayikra, Leviticus. Large portions of Leviticus simply began with the introduction "וידבר ה' אל משה לאמר" "and G-d said to Moses, saying" or "וידבר ה' אל משה ואהרון לאמר" "and G-d said to Moses and Aaron, saying".
This introduction is different. Chapter 25, the beginning of Parashat Behar begins "וידבר ה' אל משה בהר סיני לאמר" ,"And G-d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying". After so many chapters without specifying our location, why is it important for this week’s portion to begin by reiterating where we are? Not only does Parashat Behar begin by reminding us that this is something G-d said to Moshe on Mount Sinai, but the final verse of Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus is "אלא המצוות אשר צוה ה' את משה אל בני ישראל בהר סיני" "These are the commandments that the Lord gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai." What is it that we gain by reminding ourselves so thoroughly where this conversation took place?
The last two verses of Parashat Behar helped point me in what seems a very plausible direction: "לא תעשו לכם אלילים ופסל ומצבה לא תקימו לכם" "You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars" . "ואבן משכית לא תתנו בארצכם להשתחוות עליה כי אני ה' אלוקיכם "Nor may you place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I am the Lord, your G-d. את שבתתי תשמרו ומקדשי תיראו אני ה' " " You shall keep My Sabbaths and venerate My sanctuary, I am the Lord."
There is a big fear, expressed here and in numerous other places in Tanach that we will lapse and begin to worship idols. Despite our having established a brit, a covenant with G-d himself, there is no guarantee that we will remain faithful to Him. All of the surrounding nations were idol-worshippers, and it was so tempting, so simple.
You called upon an idol when you needed its help, handed over some money or fruit or some other valuable goods, and perhaps the idol would grant your prayer. Idols don’t make demands on our time, energy, thoughts and behavior like G-d does. It was only a relationship of convenience between the idolaters and their stone G-ds. On top of that, all of the things the nations worshipped could be seen. Our G-d "was not in the wind, not in the earthquake nor the fire". It is difficult to stand apart and say ‘My G-d is true’ when my G-d alone has no form or body.
One advantage of worshipping a G-d with a body is that you can travel to where it is and seek it out. That place where the statue has been erected becomes the exclusive site to ask for its help. The image of clay or stone cannot be worshipped away from its actual location.
Idolatry is a religion, then, exclusively of space. It is a place that you go to, one place that you seek assistance from, one physical object you prostrate yourself before. If G-d and false idols could even be compared, G-d would be the opposite in every way. G-d has no being, no place that he is to the exclusion of all other places. Additionally, worshipping G-d is not something to attend to only in times of need. Our covenant with G-d dictates what we eat, what we wear, how and when we act. The brit we have with G-d does not hand us success or spirituality on a silver platter; it is always a striving towards, often a returning, to Him. It is truly a relationship, with all that entails.
Our national covenant was established, as the beginning of this week’s sedra points out, and as we have been eagerly anticipating since Passover, at Mount Sinai. But the actual location of Mount Sinai is irrelevant. It could have been any mountain. G-d picked one, yes, and there are even multiple Midrashim, legends, about why he picked Sinai in particular. But G-d was not present only on that one peak, and the brit applies even once we leave the base.
Today, there is a monastery located "at the foot of Mount Sinai". Is that the precise location where G-d spoke to us amidst fire and an ever-blasting trumpet? Maybe, but the specific details of the place are not important.
This is not to say that place plays no role in Judaism! The Torah refers to "המקום אשר יבחר" "the place that G-d will choose" dozens of times. The difference, however, is that Judaism uses space as a vehicle to celebrate in time, and not as the goal itself. G-d was not only in the Temple or the Tabernacle; that’s just where He chose to manifest His presence most strongly, and as such, was where we went to celebrate. He chose the place; He was not forced to choose it nor did others choose it for Him- He had complete liberty to choose any place in the world, his power not being limited to a specific region. G-d assigned the place its value by resting His presence there; notthe other way around.
As such, Sinai stands out in our minds because of the history that occurred there, not the because of the precise location of the mountain which hosted so prominent a moment. Judaism is really about history, about relationships, about time. The first commandment is given to us before we leave Egypt: "And this month shall be to you the beginning of the months". The mitzvah is a communal obligation to sanctify time, just like the first thing mankind saw G-d do: sanctify time. Think back to the very beginning of Genesis. "ויברך אלוקים את יום השביעי ויקדש אותו""And G-d blessed the seventh day and made it holy".
Time is, as they say, of the essence. Time allows for relationships, history and growth to develop. Where idols are static and unchanging, time is always moving. Israeli poet Achad Ha’am said "More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel". Shabbat is a weekly ritual, a repeated acknowledgement on our part of the power of time. As such, it is often the first thing to be prohibited by those who would persecute us.
Once a week, it is required of us that we cease from our obligation to work and we step back, acknowledge that we are not the Masters here, savor G-d’s creation and focus our souls. We take one day out of seven where we do not engage in creative pursuits, choosing instead to come together and to praise G-d, to grow closer to Him. On that seventh day, we avoid developing space, and are called instead to choose to focus our efforts on sanctifying time and sanctifying in time.
"וידבר ה' אל משה בהר סיני לאמר" ,"And G-d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying". This opening verse directs our attention back to that power of time. We are cautioned to avoid making the place, the physical, the tangible our only goals. It is the moments in history, the set-aside, sanctified times which we are to seek out.
Shabbat is a fantastic opportunity, a moment in time. It commemorates our Exodus from Egypt; it calls to mind the creation of the world. It is, figuratively, on Mount Sinai, it is in that momentous occasion in history that happens there that the covenant and the Sabbath gain meaning, in time.
And so, the Parasha begins by reminding us where Moshe is receiving this communication, not to remind us of the specific location but for what that location stands for and the history that it represents. In Israel, we rest the land once every seven years to acknowledge that G-d created the world; every fifty years we are to restore land to its original inheritors so that the land may remain as G-d allotted it. We are not to worship idols, because G-d is not found in space. We are to observe the Sabbath, because our relationship with G-d is founded in time.
It is because of the importance of time and the prominence of Shabbat that I feel I owe all Kehillat Kneseth Israel a huge thank you. You have given me back my Shabbatot. You have opened your arms and welcomed me, laughing with me and sharing with me. Shabbat again became a time for community, a set moment to come together and thank G-d, a time to take a break from the grind of our daily lives.
It is easy to forget the power of what we have, the impact that time can have on us. I want to wish us all success in keeping the Sabbath as a "living memorial", a marker of G-d that we can carry in our hearts, keeping us away from physical markers which we might turn to, and hope that G-d will assist us in our sanctification of time; that he will continue to guide us through history, granting all of us peace, happiness, wisdom and many more Shabbatot to come. Shabbat Shalom.