Thursday, June 19, 2008

Yizkor Shavuot Sermon

This is from almost a month ago, but it is the sermon I delivered on Shavuot this year. Enjoy!

When God gave Torah at Mount Sinai, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, no angel stirred a wing, no seraph sang. The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak—the whole world was hushed into breathless silence. It was then that the voice went forth: anochi Adonai elocheicha, “I am the Lord your God” (Exod. 20:2).[1]

The world was in perfect silence that morning when we stood at Mount Sinai. Last night when we dedicated Ingrid Roskin’s sculpture of the Ten Commandments in the Bloom Lobby, I was reminded of a Kabbalistic Midrash about the revelation experience. It stems from an argument about how many commandments were revealed at Mount Sinai.

In the Torah, just after the section we read today, in verse 15 of Exodus 20, the Israelites tell Moses they will do whatever he tells them, and that he should go and talk to God. “Do not let God speak to us anymore,” the Israelites say, “lest we die.”

The midrash begins with a debate about whether this verse is out of order in the Torah. The rabbis involved in the discussion suggest different positions for the verse, moving it backward through the list of ten. “It should go after the ninth commandment.” “No, it should go after the eighth!” “The seventh!” etc. etc.

Reading this Midrash, we would think that once it gets to the suggestion to put this verse after the first commandment, it would be over. But that is just the point where it starts to get really clever. We read that the Israelites could only stand to hear the first word of the commandments, the word anochi, or “I.” Once God declared the one-ness of God, the Israelites needed no more convincing. The power of God’s voice speaking just one word was a complete revelatory experience. Just by God declaring God’s presence, the Israelites had complete faith and agreed to God’s commandments. All it took was one word.

But another rabbi says, “No, it wasn’t after the first word, it was after the first letter.” The first letter in the word anochi is an alef. What does alef sound like? It is silent. So by saying that the Israelites could not handle hearing God’s voice after God spoke the alef means the experience was intense when God spoke silence. When God prepares to speak, takes a breath, as it were, and pronounces only an alef, the world stood still. The Israelites were convinced. The revelatory experience was complete.

We are taught that when the Israelites received the Torah, it was not just the Israelites living in the desert at the time who were there at the mountain. When God revealed Torah, every Jewish soul was there at the foot of Mt. Sinai. All the souls that were yet to be born, and all the souls that had already passed on— every Jew was there that day.

The revelation of Torah allows us to come to a moment in time when we all stood together. Our past, our present, and our future, standing as one and declaring our faith in God and Torah: na’aseh v’nishmah. By standing with the souls of those yet to be, we acknowledge that we will be faithful to God and God’s Commandments in all of our future generations. By standing with the souls of the departed, we remember that our ancestors merited this pact, and it is our responsibility to uphold it.

Most of us do not remember standing at Sinai, but we were there. We were there in the ancestors who raised us with our sense of community. We were there in the form of people who were our teachers. We were there in the bodies of the family we love.

As we move into Yizkor, our service of memory, we move from ancient memory to recent memory. We remember the loved ones who stand with us at all points in our lives. We do not only remember the moments of thunder and lightning and shofars blowing on a mountain top. We also remember the moments of silence, when not even a word was needed to know that those we love, love us in return.
[1] Exod. Rabbah 29:9