Our Sedra addresses an event that was wondrously terrifying and terrifyingly wonderful. The Israelites stood at the foot of Mount Sinai, newly escaped from slavery in Egypt. They had already been the victims of a vicious attack by Amalek on their way to the mountain, and yet they trusted in the God of Moses, the God before Whose power the Reed Sea was divided.
The Midrash struggles to portray the scene, to find words that can somehow describe the ineffable. We are taught that the voice of God thundered out to the people from the south and then from the north and then from the east and then from the west. Everywhere the people turned there was the Source of the divine imperative.
We are further taught that as God spoke each person seemed to hear the words differently. When God speaks, God speaks to each of us individually. When God speaks, we hear the voice of God shaped and tempered by our own strengths, by our own needs, by our own yearnings.
Yet another Midrash declares that every true prophet who was ever to live received her or his message on that day. And every teacher who was ever to teach Torah received her or his teachings on that day. All of Jewish wisdom, our system of ethics as well as all of the greater and lesser issues of the Halacha– all were contained not only in the words themselves but in the spaces between the words.
“Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for Adonai had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder.” (Exodus 19:18-19).
We are taught that nature itself was transformed as God began to speak. We are taught that all of human history was forever changed as the Divine words were uttered. And as the first aspects of Revelation were completed, our ancestors cried out: NA’ASEH! “All that Adonai has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8).
But the Torah goes on to tell us that as God began to speak the people fled in terror and begged Moses to hear the words directly and let them hear the words of God only as mediated through their leader.
If the giving and receiving of Torah is so frightening and difficult, what happens if we really accept the Torah? What happens if we really take the burdens of Torah seriously? What happens if the demands of Torah require us to change our behavior, to act in ways that differ dramatically from the normal course of our lives? Former slaves had to take upon themselves the responsibility of moral decision-making. Of course they were frightened.
But what about us? What really happens to us if we choose to accept the moral and ethical teachings of the Torah? What really happens to us if we pay more than lip service to the core teachings of our heritage? What if we allow our consciences to demand that we match our actions with the words we honor?
During the Fried Leadership Conference Legislative Body meetings, we will consider Social Justice resolutions. Will each of us strive to ACT on our moral statements, or will social justice be forever locked within the lifeless words of resolutions? Will the demand for equal pay for women remain a mere footnote in our lives, something which we would delight to show others but which imposes no real burdens upon us? Will the drive to empower women be something which we celebrate each time we gather as women, but which is not then reflected in the work of our hands and in the passion of our hearts? Affordable housing is certainly something which all of us will embrace. But will affordable housing be something to which we will actually dedicate ourselves and our own communities? We know that child marriage is opposed to our vision of what humanity is all about. But will we delay human redemption because those who practice child marriage are not easily visible to us so that we have no need to act?
Of course the Israelites accepted with joy that with which they were presented at Mount Sinai. And of course the Israelites trembled in fear about what Torah really commanded of them.
We all started our journey as Jewish women standing together at Sinai. We all trembled with fear. And we all rejoiced. But now we must move beyond promises toward concrete efforts to make our world worthy of God’s presence. This is our personal commitment. This is our commitment to our sisterhood community. This is our commitment as leaders.
See you in Nashville!
Resa S. Davids is the vice president of ritual at University Synagogue in Los Angeles, California. Resa is corresponding secretary for WRJ Pacific District, a founding chair of WRJ-Israel, and a WRJ Board Member. Resa is also a co-chair for Fried Leadership Conference 2018.