These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[Alumni Guest Post] Choose Wisely!

Posted on May 21, 2013 by The Director of Digital Media

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Tamara Frankel (PEP '09-'11) is in her second year of
teaching at Chicagoland Jewish High School.

tfIt’s one of the first sunny days in Chicago this spring and my students beg me to take them outside for class. We negotiate and decide to review our homework in class, on the board, and then go outside to start the next sugya. Eleven rambunctious and extremely insightful freshmen sit on the grass beside the bleachers while I stand up top. I ask my students to imagine that they are at the foot of Mount Sinai and that God is holding the mountain over their heads, expecting—maybe even threatening—them to accept the Torah. If not, they will die.
My students think I’m crazy. I tell them that Rav Avdimi recounts this dramatic “filling-in-the-gaps” of a pasuk in Shmot 19:17: “ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר”  “And they [the Israelites] stood at attention at the foot of the mountain”. For a moment, I’m off the hook; I could never make up this story!
But the class is outraged and students begin to rattle off questions and not-so-friendly remarks about the Rabbis and the Torah and God. I try to contextualize Rav Avdimi’s drash in the biblical narrative. I remind them that Shavuot is called the holiday of Z’man Matan Torateinu, a time when we celebrate the giving of the Torah. But what about our choice to receive it? Do we have a choice? And who is “we?” For homework, I ask my students to answer the following question: to what extent, if any, do you feel that you have a choice in accepting the Torah? Was it forced upon you? Explain.
To my mind, this question is essential not only in studying Shavuot or this particular sugya from Shabbat 88, but as Jewish educators—period. We, as professional and individual Jews, must ask ourselves this very question regularly: what is my relationship to the Torah—the text, the mitzvot, the theologies—personally and as a member of the collective? Harkening back to Shavuot, am I being given the Torah? By whom? How and when? And to what extent am I receiving the Torah? Am I a giver or a taker of Torah?
Abraham Joshua Heschel explains that social relations often are “initiated in an act or in an event at a definite moment of time” (“The Moment at Sinai”,Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, p. 15). Heschel uses the example of a wedding as a key moment in time, with a beginning and an end, and yet this moment becomes “immortal” as if it were “still present…happening now” for the couple throughout their married life. Heschel describes similarly “the decisive event in the spiritual history of our people” as “the act that occurred at Sinai.” He writes that first this event opened up “a new relationship of God to man, in engaging Him intimately to the people of Israel; and second in Israel’s accepting that relationship, that engagement to God. It was an event in which both God and Israel were partners.”
When I read this passage, I imagine the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai to be standing at attention under a chuppah with God. They exchange their vows. And on Shavuot, as torchbearers of this covenant, we are charged to renew our vows, as individuals and as communities.
Now, returning to Rav Avdimi, I think it is imperative for us to distinguish which aspects of Torah we feel obligated, maybe even forced or demanded, to accept, and which we choose to embrace. One of my student asked in class: what’s the difference between being “forced” to accept (and observe) the Torah and growing up with it and not knowing anything else? Great question and in my view, case in point! Even though the sugya rejects Rav Avdimi’s notion of the Torah being forced upon the Israelites, my students reminded me that for many of us there is some part of our Torah that we’ve inherited consciously or unconsciously, without consent. And yet, as Jews living in the twenty-first century, we are constantly making choices about our Judaism and redefining our relationship to Torah.
Shavuot challenges us to sift through the Torah we’ve been given by our parents, our teachers, our communities and through our texts, and decide what aspects of that previously given Torah we are willing to receive and maintain, if at all, and what are the parameters of the personal Torah that we choose for ourselves.