February 12, 1998
Climbing Our Mountain
Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1--20:23)
As I, at 16, traveled through Israel for the firsttime, my Jewish nerve endings were hypersensitive. Every stone, face,taste, smell, breeze, star, touch, glimpse -- everything -- moved me.Somehow, I knew I was close to God, and now I was going to be closer-- Moses closer; I was going to climb Mount Sinai.
That night, gathered at the foot of the mountainin the middle of the desert, I began to feel weak. Something waswrong with my head and my gut -- not metaphorically wrong, butclinically wrong. I had ignored our Israeli medic's thickly accentedadvice that morning: "You must all the time drrrchink," he warned theentire tour group. "You must all the time drrrchink water. This isthe deserrrcht."
By early morning, I had awakened our group leaderand had been examined by the medic and by the doctor from a nearbyarmy base who was called in to make a decision. Dehydrated beyond thepoint of return without serious intervention, I was given distilledwater through an IV and driven several twisting kilometers throughthe desert to a base camp where I could recover and meet up laterwith my group. I would not get "Moses close" to God. I would notclimb Mount Sinai.
Mount Sinai -- or at least what might have beennear the real Mount Sinai, where, according to this week's portion,our ancestors received the Torah -- was right there in front of me,and I couldn't hack it. At 16, that kind of impotence sticks with youfor a long time.
Of course, a lot has happened since then. Likeothers, my heart has been broken and healed by love. My wife beatcancer; others I love didn't. Being a rabbi has meant helping peoplecelebrate and mourn, suffer and heal. I've watched my children beingborn and bursting into life, my parents age, my marriage mellow, amission to Mars, the cloning of life, and the simple beauty of afamily morning at home in our pajamas -- savoring the kind of nothingthat's everything.
I used to regret not making it up Sinai until Irealized that Sinai was only one place God spoke -- a place, not ThePlace. The Place, The One, The Eternal, The All Mighty is larger,better, deeper, higher, older, younger, closer, farther, simpler,more complex and more present than any one place, even a place asfamous as Mount Sinai.
The Midrash states that the Torah was originallygiven in 70 languages so that every nation could understand itswisdom and no people could claim it solely as its own. Long ago, therabbis understood that God speaks in many ways -- in nature, silence,music, love and anguish. Our job is to listen in many ways.
Twenty years ago, the 16-year-old boy in me didn'tunderstand how to listen in many ways; he was just sorry not to makeit up Sinai. With time, I learned -- we all learn -- there is nosingle Sinai. Sinai is everywhere. Having never made the climb, weare always making the climb -- then, now and forever.
Rabbi Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at WilshireBoulevard Temple.
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