Apparently as early as 1926, property experts were citing “location, location, location” as the three determinants of the desirability of a property. Our 21st century property experts and event planning mavens might find it hard to fathom why a non-remarkable desert mountain was chosen as the said perfect location for the event of the era. Some might argue the most influential episode in world history.
It is a touch peculiar that God would decide to hand deliver these eternal messages, the everlasting Torah, in the middle of nowhere. In the wilderness. Why not in Egypt before the exodus? Why not on arrival at the borders of the Promised Land or after entering Israel for the very first time as a nation?
Nothing is by coincidence. No-man’s land was indeed prime real estate for this wedding between the Children of Israel and God and now the annual focus of our Shavuot celebrations (this year beginning Thursday evening).
Rabbi David Stav helps us survey this timeless question about the choice of location for the Giving of the Torah. Had the Torah been given within the boundaries of a certain people or nation, certainly some would have said “it was presented there, not in our town, it’s not for us. It was given within their sovereign borders, we are surely exempt”.
Not within the borders of one of the tribes of Israel was the Torah presented. God knew well the opening this would create for jealousy, for possessive aggression. How well we can imagine one shevet (tribe) insisting “it was after all given on this mountain within our territory, thus it belongs to us”. Or more to us than to you.
We are the protectors of the Torah. Not you. It was given here. You just happened to be invited to the wedding. We are part of the official wedding party and hosts to you all.
God identified the risk and became a peacemaker, an equalizer, a unifier. He chose to give the guidelines for life to the Jewish people standing as one, in a place that was unclaimed, belonged to none.
Comes this Torah portion we read on first day Shavuot (Friday this week) and cements this sense of the united “we”. Not only is a singular form of the verb to describe their camping at the foot on Mt Sinai, but Moses’ approaching the elders to share all the words God had commanded him is greeted by a united response from the nation.
“The entire people (כל העם) respond together and say ‘Everything that God has spoken we shall do’. (Exodus 19:7-8)
No-mans land becomes all-man’s land. The Torah for all, accessible to all. For all to hear and all to accept. Together.
And the women in no-man’s land? Comes the Mechilta (a famous commentary that expands on the biblical narrative) and says that where at the very outset of this Sinai experience God says to Moses “So shall you say to the House of Jacob and relate to the Children of Israel” (19:3) – here we are not seeing superfluous repetition of names for the people of Israel. In actual fact the “House of Jacob” refers to women and “Children of Israel” to the men.
In celebrating the growth in Jewish women learning and teaching Torah over the last 100 years, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks highlights this centrality of women in Jewish life, as scholars and teachers in a 2017 Shavuot shiur. It is not lost on him that the women in fact appear in this verse first as God sets the scene for giving the Torah.
Perhaps this Shavuot, as we celebrate this 3312th anniversary of this wedding in the Sinai wilderness, we need to reflect on what we have faced in all our communities and countries over the past three months. Will we take a moment to examine the scars and bruises inflicted across generations of needless conflict and infighting, three bitter election battles in Israel and an apparent unceasing need to claim exclusive rights to Torah, to Jewish law, to there being just one way, my way, to do it right?
There are always red lines, and there needs to be, but perhaps our 2020 Shavuot experience can include a fond recollection of humble beginnings, in a most unremarkable location and can jolt us again into our reconnecting with the whole team, placing the collective, the united “we” back at the center of our lives.