Making Our Way Together to Sinai | Shavuot

Rabbi Eleanor Steinman, RJE | Congregation Beth Israel, Texas, USA

This year, the Omer, the time between the celebrations of Passover and Shavuot took on new meaning. As our world responded to the Covid-19 pandemic it felt like we are counting with extra intensity. When the stay home orders came to my home state of California in mid-March, Passover was still several weeks away. This year our Seder table, while festive and beautiful as always, also included computers and other technology so that we could share our liberation with family online rather than in person. I welcomed the practice of marking each day of the Omer with blessing, even as I wondered what the world might look like 49 days later.

It seems at the time of writing this d’var Torah, that like Passover, Shavuot observances will be online to protect the health and safety of each human being. Could this be what we imagined 50 days ago? It surely is beyond anything that I might have imagined. Nevertheless, it is a fitting moment to focus on the notion of rules that establish and reestablish community, whether Divine or human, as we make preparations for this holy time.

When the Israelites stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai they were a community in formation. The Exodus from Egypt was part of their collective consciousness. As the time came to establish the brit, the covenant between the people and God, there were some existent formulas. Nahum Sarna wrote, “in the ancient world, relationships between individuals as well as between states were ordered and regulated by means of covenants, or treaties,” (The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 102). The covenant needed to be intelligible to the entirety of the people at that moment, not just Moses and the upper echelons of leadership. Therefore it makes sense that a familiar structure could have universal appeal. The covenant created an everlasting partnership agreement between God and the Jewish people.

The Israelites believed with seeming certainty in God. Even before the moment of Revelation, just a few verses away, these people were ready for this partnership. They said with one voice, “all that the Eternal has spoken we will do,” (Ex. 19:8). An unwavering statement of absolute faith.

We are the ancestors of those Israelites and while we surely have faith, for some of us it is not absolute. As we navigate this Covid-19 world, our faith may also be changing. Like the Israelites who moved forward into freedom, we will also, God willing soon, chart a new course to a post Covid-19 future. In order to get there, we will also need to incorporate new rules and recommendations into our lives. Though these rules are not coming from God, as God’s covenant partners we must trust the wisdom of scientists, medical professionals, and public health experts to guide us. We will need to become experts at social distancing and amass a variety of face coverings to ensure safety for some time. We must be like the Israelites ready to accept the rules in the interest of health and safety even before we fully know what they might be.

We are both affirming our covenant with God and with our fellow human being as we take steps to ensure their safety and our own. We are people with free will. Each of us will make a myriad of decisions in compliance with the rules. We do this with conscience. In his book Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis explains in beautiful detail the complexities of our covenant with God and the choice we make to obey the rules or not. He wrote:

The duty to obey and the duty to disobey inform the covenant with contrasting attitudes. The duty to obey inclines toward a more stringent, absolutistic discipline that brooks no question of the divine Commander. Consequently, it offers greater certainty, safety, and security to the believer, and distances itself from the challenging postures predicated on the prerogatives of human conscience. The duty to disobey is more open to a reciprocal dialogue in which human conscience enjoys high status and encourages initiative and responsibility. Each perspective within the tradition engages the other with a. temperamental and intellectual set of presuppositions that affect Jewish theology, ethics, and law. The character and power of each partner of the covenant are shaped by the two different versions of the covenant (p. 57).

Our conscience will guide us as we navigate the rules for the world we are creating with God. As we make our preparations to stand at Sinai anew to connect ourselves to the covenant with God. Let each of our steps towards revelation bring us strength, wholeness, good health, and blessing. As we reach the 50th day of the Omer may we each merit this blessing:

I have numbered my days and come to understand that my days are numbered. The finite nature of my life demands my attention and constant consideration. I have been granted daily life in order to think, to contemplate, to be kind, to be purposeful, to be silent, to be energetic, to be god-like, to be fully human, to be forgiving, to be in love, to be aware of life with all aspects of my being, with my mind, my body, my spirit (Rabbi Karen D. Kedar. Omer: A Counting. CCAR Press, 2014. p. 167).

Amen. Chag sameach. See you at Sinai.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).