Serving G-d in This World
The week's Temple Talk is dedicated to Joanna Kenyon on the occasion of her birthday,
by her husband Terry.
"In the third month after the Israelites left Egypt, on the first of the month, they came to the desert of Sinai. They had departed from Rephidim and had arrived in the Sinai Desert, encamping in the wilderness.
There Israel encamped before the mountain." (Exodus 19:1-2)
The upcoming festival of of Shavuoth strikes us by its apparent dual nature: we are instructed to re-experience the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, an event profoundly supernatural, in which the Jewish nation received its supreme spiritual inheritance: the Holy Torah. Yet, when the Temple stands, the pilgrimage festival of Shavuoth takes on an entirely different, seemingly opposite and very material, dimension: the bringing of the first fruits of the land of Israel to the Holy Temple, accompanied by expressions of thankfulness to Hashem for the bounty of the land.
What appears at first glance to be a festival marked by contradiction, is actually a celebration of the sublime unity in G-d's creation as understood through the prism of Torah. This unity is first and foremost expressed by the Torah itself, which describes the Israelite nation in the singular, as one person, "and there Israel encamped before the mountain." (Exodus 19:2) For only in absolute unity, (a state that reflects, or twins G-d's unity), could the nation of Israel accept the Torah as an enduring heritage. Once we understand this, the seeming contradictions start to fall into place. It becomes evident that the supernatural phenomenon that took place at Sinai, while the mount "was all in smoke," (Exodus 19:18), was not a grand spectacle to impress the masses, but a message that all things in G-d's created world, whether they be what we designate as natural, or what we designate as spiritual, emanate from a single truth. We pursue this truth, and participate in G-d's oneness through the performance of the commandments enumerated in the very Torah handed down to us all, from the "thunder and lightning... and thick cloud" of Sinai. (Exodus 19:16)
Yet we mortals are by nature limited in our ability to readily perceive the oneness of creation. Thus, G-d commanded through Moses that a limitation, a boundary or hagbalah be set around the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai as a prerequisite for the giving of the Torah. For only by accepting our G-d-given limitations will we be able to truly accept our obligations, and live our lives in accordance with Torah. The flash of illumination that we bask in on the Passover seder night is an inspiring start, but developing within ourselves the spiritual discipline that will enable us to live according to Torah, and hold onto that light for more than just one night, is a step by step process. We take the first step with the pesach offering commanded in Egypt. But the next step necessary for receiving the Torah is really forty nine steps of inner preparation. The first step we took in Nissan. The second step we take now, in the month of Sivan. For we are not angels, balancing on one foot. We are human beings, and need to have two feet planted firmly in this world.
The Torah teaches us how to serve G-d through our actions. The bringing of the first fruits to the Holy Temple on Shavuoth and the accompanying words of praise and gratitude to Hashem is the embodiment of service through action. And this is the fulfillment of the challenge of Torah. The two baked loaves of leavened bread offered on Shavuoth in the Holy Temple symbolize the fruition of the ongoing relationship between G-d and man. What was once raw grain, harvested on the second day of Passover, fit only for beasts, has now, with time and effort, become two fine loaves, the result of the man-G-d partnership, fit to be consumed in the courtyards of the Holy Temple.
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