Rabbi Jack Cohen
Rabbi Jack Cohen

Room for All Around a Modest Mountain

Like One Person With One Heart

The holiday of Shavuot, which will begin at dusk tonight (Sunday, May 16th) is notoriously the least known of the major Jewish holidays.  It boasts no iconic family meal like the Passover Seder.  Nor does it have the hands-on, outdoorsy appeal of Sukkot.  There are no costumed kids and inebriated adults prancing through the streets.  There are no distinct candelabras burning in our windows.  And, naturally, it can’t compete with the gravitas associated with days of judgment and atonement.

Were we to be motivated to run a big PR campaign to get the word out about Shavuot, we’d have a hard time finding a hook to hang it on.

Pre-COVID, most communities would organize all-night Torah learning events based on a custom whose origin can be traced back to the early 1500’s in Tzfat.  To fuel the learning, synagogues would classically provide coffee on tap and all-you-can-eat cheesecake.  For those of us who know and love Torah learning, this has always been a highlight of the year, but we can readily understand why even cheesecake hasn’t been enough to propel Shavuot to the top of the list of Jewish holidays for the majority of Jews.

Here’s the heart of the issue:

The problem of Shavuot isn’t a Shavuot-problem.  It’s a Torah-problem.  

Most Jews feel little to no connection to the Torah.  And unlike other Jewish holidays, on Shavuot, there are no props or perks that can conceal this tragic fact.  Shavuot slipping under the popular radar merely frames the issue that a staggering number of Jews are nowhere to be found at base camp of Mount Sinai.

Perhaps if we study together the events that led to the receiving of the Torah we will be better able to understand why we aren’t more receptive to Torah today, and what we can do about it.

Let’s begin in a more familiar starting point.  Nearly ⅔ of American Jews have some form of Passover Seder every year. I would assume that the majority sing “Dayenu,” or are at least familiar with it.  It is, however, quite likely that even the very observant fail to observe the absurdity of the line that expresses our gratitude simply for being present at the location where the Torah was given:

“If He would have brought us close to Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah, Dayenu — it would have been sufficient for us.”

Sufficient? What could have possibly been the benefit of freeing us from slavery, taking us out of Egypt and through the sea, and shlepping us all the way through the desert to bring us to the foot of Mount Sinai — only to not give us the Torah? Are we really thanking God for a national camping trip?  

To answer this question, many of the commentaries on the Haggadah point to a mysterious statement of the Sages of the Talmud that the confusion that entered the human psyche at the hands of the Snake in the Garden of Eden was temporarily dispelled upon our ancestors’ arrival at the mountain, even before they received the Torah itself.

This, however, in classic Torah-study fashion, raises further questions:

What was the nature of this confusion? 

How could something as simple as standing at the foot of a mountain get rid of it? 

Lastly, what, if anything does this have to do with us today? 

Presumably, we still suffer on some level from this cosmic confusion.  I think we can venture to say that the majority’s disinterest in the Torah (and therefore Shavuot) on the one hand, and the minority’s inability to generate interest from the majority, on the other, is a part of this same mental block which apparently was not permanently removed.

First question: What’s the deal with the confusion caused by the Snake?

The confusion that plagued and still plagues human beings was due to the Snake making Eve feel unimportant. God, he insisted, was trying to suppress her and Adam’s knowledge of themselves and the world so that they wouldn’t be “like God, knowers of Good and Evil.” It’s for this reason, according to the Snake, that God was keeping them from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” “God knows a lot. And He needs you to know less or else you’ll be like Him, and He can’t have that.” “Your loss is His gain.”

The Snake introduced the now-pervasive notion of competition. Our self-worth ceased being intrinsic. In the depths of our minds, our worth became relative to how we ranked against others. Our vision of ourselves, God, and other people was suddenly and indefinitely clouded.

Second question: How can standing at the foot of a mountain dispel such a profound fallacy?

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, known by the name of his classic commentary the Kli Yakar (1602), describes our momentous arrival at this auspicious location, and offers a compelling answer to this question.

After months of trekking through the Egyptian and Sinai deserts, still reeling from a terrorist attack from the army of Amalek, facing the almost absolute unknown ahead of them, the fears and anxieties of our disoriented ancestors gave way to arguments and divisiveness. In the vacuum of clarity of what our national destiny would look like, leaders rose and factions coalesced around them. Each one claimed to know the way forward, even though, in hindsight, we know that no one, except perhaps Moses, had a clue.

As intense as these emotions must have been, they all seem to have magically melted away upon our arrival at Mount Sinai.

The text in Exodus 19:2 transitions from the plural, “they encamped (ויחנו) in the desert,” to the singular, “Israel encamped (ויחן) there opposite the mountain.” Somehow our settling at this foot of this particular mountain catalyzed a wave of feelings of national unity.  But how?

When I was a kid, I was taught a classic midrashic idea that Mount Sinai was chosen by God for its humility as the most meager of the surrounding mountains.  It certainly resonated on some rudimentary level that intellectual humility is critical to be able to learn new things, but only recently did I ask myself the more practically-minded question: how exactly did the mountain’s “humility” make any difference in the actual experience of an estimated two million people?

Let’s try to put ourselves in their sandals for a moment.  Having been raised to feel like a cheap commodity under the oppressive rule of Pharaoh — in a society that worshipped his supreme power — our ancestors likely assumed that the revelation of the Omnipotent Creator of the Universe would have been choreographed to occur on the most imposing peak in that vast wilderness to demonstrate God’s greatness and their smallness.  This was the leadership style to which they had sadly become accustomed to.  God, they would have imagined, was like Pharaoh, but of course, bigger — a notion whose poisonous seed was planted by the Snake millennia prior.

This deep-seated expectation vaporized as they came through a clearing and opened their eyes wide to behold that their destination that evening, where they would encamp for an entire year, was a small, modest mountain which would serve as the setting for their encounter with God Himself.  The unique beauty of this mountain was precisely in its not eclipsing any of the other mountains around it.

On some level, they began to intuit that God was not trying to overshadow them, but quite the opposite — He was making room for them.

This catalyzed what was nothing short of a national epiphany.  On some significant level, their perception of God and their perception of themselves as individuals and collectively was transformed overnight — literally.

Just as this unassuming mountain did not pretend to be any more or any less than what it was, they realized that they could do the same. God, they realized, wasn’t looking for the tallest mountain. They breathed a sigh of relief in the realization that they didn’t have to be the richest, the smartest, the most powerful — the most anything. All they had to do in life was rise to the challenge of being themselves.

True humility is not low self-esteem, but its opposite: the self-esteem which allows a person to feel comfortable with him- or herself. It dispels any need to put others down, compensate for one’s lacks, seek validation, or “be everything” to everyone. This frees up a ton of headspace and heart-space, allowing us to make room for others.

As this pin dropped, any sense of competition or jealousy towards the people on either side of them faded with the knowledge that these people also had their places, which in no way threatened their own.  Everyone just had to be themselves.

With the realization that each person has his and her place around the mountain, and all together are part of something bigger than any one of them, they set up camp with a newfound sense of unity “opposite the mountain,” as the verse underscores.  For this awesome revelation, in and of itself, we say “Dayenu.”  It would have been worth the seven week expedition if only to experience that sense of sublime national unity, the humility in being part of something so vast, and the self-worth in knowing that each of us had to be there or else we would have been sorely missed.

This perception is the prerequisite for receiving the Torah.  Said differently, one of the major things which holds people back from being receptive to Torah is the lack of this perception — not knowing their self worth, not knowing that they have a place at the base of the mountain, and not seeing Judaism as large enough to include the full spectrum of people and their personalities.

This is what we need to work on as we head into Shavuot so that next year, we bump into more Jews of more stripes and colors at the basecamp of Mount Sinai.

The national unity we had to experience in order to receive the Torah is described by our Sages being “as one person with one heart.”

This does not mean that they were a single-minded mob, but rather, quite the opposite — we were like a single human body composed of vastly diverse cells, organs, and systems with their own specialized function, yet all serving the greater good of the health of the organism as a whole.  We, as individuals, were uplifted to discover that we were much more vital to the whole, and therefore to the destiny of the world, than we could have possibly conceived prior. At the same time, this realization was humbling. We realized that no single person or people could do everything necessary for the larger organism. The health of the organism requires specialization, and specialization requires that one be unspecialized in many other areas. Moreover, like healthy blood vessels, everything we are given is solely in order for us to pay forward.  Nothing is for us to keep solely for ourselves.

At the foot of Mount Sinai, Hashem facilitated our grasping this paradigm in order for us to receive His Torah as it was meant to be received — as a guide not for a homogenous blob of people, but as a guide for a multifaceted nation in which our national mission is predicated on every member fulfilling his or her personal mission.

This is why the Torah as a guidebook does not present us with a single leader we are meant to singularly emulate. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah, using their totally different spiritual gifts, built the family that became our nation. The 12 tribes embodied a full spectrum of creative powers blessed by Jacob and, later, by Moses. Similarly, Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Betzalel, Joshua, Caleb, and Pinchas each led us in the desert in ways that the others could not. We needed all of their examples to become the people we became through the challenges of those forty years. The prophets, judges, kings, and sages of Nach expand the mosaic of examples that guide our lives. It is no accident that the teachings of the Sages, whether the Mishnah, Gemara, Midrash, or Zohar, all weave together tapestries of the teachings of many teachers in dialogue with one another.

The reason that the fallacy of the Snake could vaporize so quickly is because it is patently untrue. Deeper than his venom could penetrate, we all intuit that we are part of something vast and that each of us contributes something entirely unique. We just need the right setting to remind us of what we already know.

Third question: What does this have to do with us today?

Our job is not just to teach Torah. Nor is our job simply to preach unity. We must embody what that little mountain embodied for our ancestors. We must each work to bring out our own individuality, and in so doing make room for everyone else, who are, by definition, different from us. In addition to making room for them, we can actively help them by celebrating their strengths and unique contributions. We can and must create learning and living environments that are conducive to mind-expanding conversation and nurture diverse communities.

I love cheesecake as much as the next guy, but nothing is more enjoyable than experiencing the kaleidoscopic beauty of human diversity when people can respect and love one another. It is no wonder that this is the kind of setting we need to foster to open people’s hearts and minds to our national mission of making the world a place for peaceful, enlightened coexistence.

This essay was adapted from the introduction to Nurture their Nature by R’ Yosef Lynn, PsyD and R’ Jack Cohen, EdM, a guide to the Torah’s guidance on educating ourselves and others as happy, confident and humble individuals. It is now available for pre-order on the Mosaica Press website.

About the Author
Rabbi Jack Cohen is the Director of Education of the Jewish Enrichment Center in West Village of New York City, working to create interactive educational programs that grant access to Torah that is deep and relevant to 20-somethings who are thirsty for it. Rabbi Jack served as a campus rabbi for Meor at the University of Pennsylvania and an Israel programs educator before that. He is currently coauthoring a book on the subject of individuality and self-esteem through the eyes of the Sages, called "Born to Be." He received his Rabbinic ordination in Jerusalem after his BA from Penn in Physics and Philosophy, and earned his Masters in Education at Harvard last year.
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