May 20, 2004
Mount Sinai, Take Two
On the first of May, at his bar mitzvah at University Synagogue, my son, Danny, received the Torah, passed down from his grandparents to my husband, Larry, and me to him.
This was not the first time.
On the sixth of Sivan, 3,316 years ago at Mount Sinai, Danny also received the Torah, passed down from God to Moses to every Jew who would ever be born.
"Why twice?" I ask.
"Maybe the first time was to signify the unity of the Jewish people and the second time was to reinforce the commandments to me specifically," he answers.
Danny knows these commandments. Not only from 13 years of living in a Jewish family and attending Jewish schools, but also from six months of studying his Torah portion, Kedoshim, the Holiness Code.
For, as Danny told the congregation in his d'var Torah the morning of his bar mitzvah, "Kedoshim is referred to as the heart of the Torah both physically and spiritually. It is the physical heart because if you unroll the Torah its entire length, Kedoshim is right in the middle. It is the spiritual heart because Kedoshim contains the most important rules to live by, including the Golden Rule."
Indeed, right in the middle of Kedoshim is Leviticus 19:18, which says, "Love your neighbor as yourself." This is the Golden Rule, found in some variation in all major religions.
And, in fact, found in some variation even in Judaism, in a negative version formulated by Rabbi Hillel in the first century C.E. Asked by a potential convert to summarize the Torah "while standing on one foot," Hillel answered, "That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. That is the heart of the Torah; all the rest is commentary."
Counterintuitively, the negative version is more all encompassing and thus more protective. As Danny explained, "What if a person doesn't love himself or is a masochist and wants to hurt himself? Would we want him to treat others as he treats himself?"
Kedoshim contains a plethora of time-tested laws on how people should treat each other. "You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger (Leviticus 19:10); "You shall not insult the deaf nor place a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14); and "Do not profit by the blood of your fellow" (Leviticus 19:16). And, increasingly my favorite, "You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old" (Leviticus 19:32).
We Jews voluntarily accepted the Torah with its written and oral laws before ever knowing its content when, at the base of Mount Sinai, we exclaimed, "We will do and we will hear." Of course, we may have been influenced, as one Midrash tells us, by God's threatening to drop the mountain on our heads if we refused.
But we don't necessarily accept all 613 laws as equally important. Some, such as those relating to the priesthood and animal sacrifice, are no longer relevant. Others, relating to ritual, vary in significance and practice. And some, as civilizations evolve and new problems and moral predicaments arise, are reinterpreted. For example, most of us aren't farmers and can't leave one-sixteenth or more of our fields unharvested. But we can, as Danny pointed out, give charity or donate food.
And, ultimately, what counts is not whether we say the Shema in the morning and evening, not whether a woman is a virgin when she marries or not even whether we believe in God. Ultimately what counts is how we treat other people.
How we treat other people is so important that the rabbis of the Talmud tell us, "The first question an individual is asked in the afterlife at the final judgment is: 'Were you honest in your business dealings?'" and "He who publicly shames his neighbor is as though he shed blood."
"Other people" does not pertain only to fellow Jews.
"I am proud to know that my religion takes everyone, and not just Jews, into consideration. It tells us that it is our duty to take care of everyone," Danny told the congregation.
By adhering to the Golden Rule, to the heart of the Torah, we are given an opportunity to become holy and to make the world a better place. We are given purpose and meaning to our lives.
We need to be reminded of this obligation more than once every 3,316 years. We need to be reminded every year.
And so, on the holiday of Shavuot, which begins at sundown on May 25, Danny, with all of us Jews, will once again stand at Mount Sinai and symbolically receive the Torah. Together we will reaffirm our commitment to Jewish life and Jewish values. Together we will reaffirm our commitment to not do to others what is hateful to us.
Jane Ulman is a freelance writer who lives in Encino and has four sons.