Shabbat Inspiration – “Shavuot and God on the Horizontal Axis”
by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Student, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, June 3, 2019
Tonight, I want to talk about God…. Not to go all “holy roller” on you but because so many of our interactions are based on assumptions that when we use the letters Yud Hay Vav Hay, when we use the word God, or Adonai, or Source of Life, or haShem, or Lord, or Master of the Universe, we assume we are talking about the same thing….
As an example, as our prayer circle crafted this week’s prayer, it was clear that we were not all on the same page concerning understanding of God. Group members differed on questions such as if there is one, if it is omnipotent, if it listens to and if can answer our prayers. Tonight, I want to talk about God as a horizontal experience… not a vertical one. I am not asking that my views on God become yours, but that we uncover the underlying assumptions so that we better understand each other.
What do I mean when I say God is not a vertical experience? Take a moment, close your eyes and, if you believe in God, picture your connection to it. Now open your eyes… What did you see? (Listen to folks…)
For those of you who pictured God as up above, looking down, moving the pieces according to a long-term, strategic plan, that is a god that I call “God on the vertical axis.” If that is God on the vertical, what is God on the horizontal?
Tomorrow night begins the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot commemorates the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It is said about Shavuot that “Every year we renew our acceptance of G-d’s gift, and G-d “re-gives” the Torah.” What does this mean, to renew our acceptance of Torah, that God “re-gives” the Torah? Aren’t the words of Torah written down in the scrolls behind me? Can’t any one of us pick up an English version of the text and there it is? And when two friends, two individuals with different life experiences, different political views, each unique in their own beautiful way, both created in the image of God and carrying a spark of the divine, pick up a text to read it, how do we begin our study? With a blessing… L’asok b’divrei Torah – to interact with words of Torah….
Dictionary.com defines the word “interact” as to act one upon another. Acting upon one another is the description of a relationship between two parties – each having an effect on the other – they are equal in what they bring to the table, and the end of the interaction, both are changed. This is the description of a horizonal relationship. When I close my eyes and picture God, I picture everything that ever was, all that is, and all that will be. Everything is part of this energy, this interconnected Source of Life. I am a part of this Source of Life, I am an expression of this Source of Life, and, through my actions and deeds, I am expressing this Source of Life. This is God on the horizontal axis. God on the horizontal axis is expressed through human interactions and the good that we do in world that moves us toward a repaired world, as we build the world we want to come.
What does it mean to renew our acceptance of Torah, that on Shavuot God “re-gives” the Torah? One of ways to observe Shavuot is through study. Tomorrow night many of us will gather to study a variety of texts as a community. We’ll bring our own unique perspectives and experiences to the table, we will interact with words of Torah, and we will emerge changed. And through this interaction and study, we will renew our acceptance of the Torah and through this interaction, the Torah will be re-given to us.
And as we interact with the words of Torah, and with each other, will we each hear the same thing? Will we each come away with the same understandings?
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes the following in “The Silent Alef”
Narrator: “No one really knows for sure what happened on Mount Sinai.” One time the rabbis were arguing about it.
RABBI 1: “At Mt Sinai God spoke the entire Torah to all the Children of Israel, and Moses wrote it down as God spoke.
RABBI 2: “No! It says in the Torah that the Children of Israel heard only the Ten Commandments that were carved in stone with the finger of God.
RABBI 3: “NO NO! The people could not handle hearing all of that. It would be too much for them. They only heard God say the first word of the Ten Commandments– “ANOCHI!” אנכי and then the entire world went totally silent, not even a bird chirped or a frog croaked.” Anochi means “I am” – Basically they heard God saying “I exist – I am real”
RABBI 4: “NO NO NO!!! ‘Not even the first word, Anochi אנכי, was heard. All that God spoke was the first letter, of the first word, of the first commandment. At Sinai, all the people of Israel needed to hear was the sound of the alef. It meant that God and the Jewish people could have a conversation.”
Narrator: Jewish mysticism teaches that Alef, contains the entire Torah. But not everyone hears the gentle sound of alef. People are able to hear only what they are ready to hear. God speaks to each of us in a personal way, taking into consideration our strength, wisdom, and preparation.
Rabbi Hananiah ben Teradion said “but if two sit together and there are words of Torah [spoken] between them, then the Shekinah abides among them”
Tomorrow night when we gather to study, when we are blessed by the insights and wisdom of our teachers, may we renew our acceptance of Torah. May we grow in our understanding of each other, in our understanding of ourselves, and may the Shekinah will dwell among us.
 Pirkei Avot, Chapter 3, Mishna 2