Reflections from Rabbi Waxman
Where is Sinai?
Undoubtedly you have heard of or even perused the children’s series entitled “Where’s Waldo?” The challenge with each of the illustrations is to find Waldo who is hidden amidst hundreds of other characters on the two-page illustration. Sometimes with a bit of luck, sometimes with keen vision, and sometimes with sheer persistence Waldo is located and you move on to the next adventure searching for Waldo.
This series comes to mind as we approach the festival of Shavuot, which we celebrate this weekend. Originally an agricultural festival it was transformed into the commemoration of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. What is odd is that though Jewish literature is filled with references to the revelation at Sinai, the question has to be
asked “Where’s Sinai?” Can we locate Sinai? If one does a quick Google search one will discover that there are multiple sites suggested for Mount Sinai, ranging from the “traditional” Jebel Musa in the southern Sinai Peninsula to sites in Saudi Arabia and even in the northern Negev. There is no agreement about its location.
For a location with such enduring importance, it is odd that it is barely referenced outside of the Torah. There are only 4 references to Mount Sinai and another 5 to Mount Horeb, its alternate designation. And only one person after the period of the Exodus makes his way there: the prophet Elijah, after fleeing from the wrath of King Ahab, reaches Horeb where he encounters the Almighty.
Later on, the rabbinic tradition has many a lovely story about the merits of Sinai, but there is nary a story about any Jews visiting. One exception is the story of Rabbah bar Bar Hanah who traveled in the desert with an Arab merchant who said he would show him Mount Sinai. The late 3rd century sage reaches the mountain only to discover that it is surrounded by scorpions. Once there he merits hearing a divine voice, a voice bemoaning Israel’s exile. But what is significant here is that this Palestinian rabbi was dependent upon a non-Jew to guide him there. Clearly there was no continuous Jewish tradition as to its location. Given the absence of a Jewish tradition as to its location, one has to wonder on what basis Queen Helena in the 4th century concluded that Jebel Musa was the mount of Moses that is Mount Sinai.
Why should this be so? One reason would be obvious: geography. Except for the short period after the Six Day War, the Sinai Peninsula was never under Jewish sovereignty; it was across borders. More significantly is the fact that Mount Zion and the Temple Mount replaced Sinai. The Temple became God’s dwelling place. It’s as though God relocated from the Sinai wilderness to Jerusalem. Jerusalem and the Temple became our foci; Sinai, had served its purpose. Jerusalem and the Temple were the centers of the earth; the gateway to heaven. (Indeed, there is a rabbinic tradition that merges Jacob’s resting spot, where he had that vision of angels ascending and descending, with the Temple Mount.)
A third explanation suggests itself. In an interesting article that appeared some years ago in Bible Review, there is comparison of two 6th century mosaics of the Holy Land. The first was a map: it was located in a church in Jordan—the Madaba map. It highlights the holy sites in the Holy Land of the late Byzantine era. The other is also a mosaic: but except for a little decoration is essentially a lengthy text which delineates what communities were considered part of the Land of Israel for agricultural purposes and which were outside of its borders. The former mosaic was Christian; the latter was of Jewish origin. Holy sites were part of the Christian mindset. For Jews, there were few venerated spots outside of the Temple itself: the entire land was holy. Locations outside of its territory lacked enduring sanctity.
A fourth and final explanation: Perhaps Sinai is given short shrift as a way of saying that the significance of Torah is not where it was initially presented, but where Torah continues to be transmitted and taught.
And that leads us to Shavuot. The importance of the festival is that the Voice heard at Sinai so many centuries ago still can be heard today, if we continue to engage in the study and transmission of Torah.
Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach!
I hope that you will join us Sunday morning at 10 a.m. at the ‘rabbinage” for Shavuot services followed by lunch. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chadashot MeYisrael: News From Israel
Turning Garbage Into Biofuel: A New Home Version
Last fall, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon while visiting the sukkah of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin witnessed a demonstration of a machine that converts organic waste into clean biogas for cooking and heating, as well as produces organic liquid crop fertilizer. According to Ami Amir of HomeBioGas, the Secretary General was excited by the possibilities afforded by the device. Aware that millions of people die each year due to indoor smoke from open fires “This is just the thing they need,” said Ban Ki-Moon. “The UN should be purchasing these units!”
The Israeli company is not the first to produce a household biodigester. But it has significantly improved on existing models. About 8 years ago, the cofounder, Yair Teller, travelled to Mexico to observe biogas systems in operation and visited other countries, as well, where they were in place. Initially the Israelis acquired systems from overseas and installed them in Israel only to discover their limitations, notably that they are inefficient, plagued with bad odors and insect infestations. After extensive development, the Israelis have produced an improved system, which includes a built-in grinder for food waste, a tap for rinsing off plates, a sink and a manual mixer. A bio-filter reduces odors and a chorine filter eliminates pathogens in the fertilizer. The company claims that its biodigesters can generate enough gas to cook three meals daily, if the household “feeds” all its organic waste.
The home units are deemed a sustainable solution for off-grid urban and rural families, as well as for environmentally conscious homeowners and small farms in warmer climes. Last summer the Israeli Ministry of Environmental Protection purchased and installed TevaGas units at Umm Batim, a Bedouin village near Beersheba. After the success of the pilot program, the ministry has ordered another 25 units at a cost of about $2,000 each—for that community and another Bedouin village.
Meantime, the Dominican Republic has purchased 50 of the units, hoping that this will help lessen the country’s reliance on wood for home heating. Orders for distribution have come in from countries as diverse as Australia, Nigeria and Costa Rica. According to Amir, “About 70 different countries are interested in establishing distributorships. So evidently we are answering a need.”
A Comment on the Weekly Torah Portion
We begin this Saturday, May 23rd, the readings of Numbers with this week’s Torah portion of B’midbar (Numbers 2:1-3:13)
3:2 These were the names of Aaron’s sons: Nadab the first-born and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. (3) Those were the names of Aaron’s sons, the anointed priests who were ordained for priesthood. (4) But Nadab and Abihu died by the will of the Lord, when they offered alien fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai; and they left no sons. So it was Eleazar and Ithamar who served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron.
3:4 when they offered alien fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai; and they left no sons. Why does the verse tell us “they had no sons?” Would it have mattered if they had had sons? But Midrash Rabbah (Leviticus, chapter 24) says, that at the time that a person sins, and he has a righteous son, he is not punished, for if he is punished his son will suffer as well, and why should a righteous son suffer? And hence this is the import of the text “they had no sons”—had they had sons, it is possible because of their merit [the merit of their sons], the punishment would have been withheld from them [Nadab and Abihu]. (Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk cited in B. Yeushson, Meotzarenu Hayashan: B’midbar, D’varim.Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen was born in 1843 in Butrimonys (Yiddish name Baltrimantz), Lithuania, to Samson Kalonymus, a local wealthy merchant. Married at the age of 17, he moved to Bialystok, where his wife ran a business while he continued to engage in rabbinic studies. At the age of 40, having previously turned down many offers of rabbinic positions, he finally accepted the position of communal rabbi for the Mitnagdim –the non-Hassidic Jews--in Dvinsk [Daugavpils, Latvia]. In 1906, along with several other rabbis, including the Hassidic rebbe of the community, the Rogatchover Rebbe, proved that two claims by Shlomo Friedlander of having found and published two previously unknown tractates of the Palestinian Talmud was false: the volumes were in fact clever forgeries. He served the community for 4 decades, having declined offers to serve more prestigious communities including Kovno and Jerusalem. He was described by the Hebrew poet Chayim Nachman Bialik “as a walking encyclopedia” He was a strong supporter of settlement in the Land of Israel and hailed the Balfour Declaration. [However, a web site “Torah True Jews against Zionism” cites a passage from his commentary on Genesis in which he suggests that Jews may not leave exile on their own!] He was the author of a commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah entitled Ohr Somaych. Under that title there also appeared commentary on two tractates of the Talmud. His commentary on the Torah is known as Meshech Chochmah. A collection of his responsa has also been published. He had one daughter who pre-deceased him. He died in 1926.)
The Torah reading for the first day of Shavuot, Sunday, May 24th, is Exodus 19:1-20: 23.
19:1 On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the Land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai. (2) Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain.
On the way to their lofty encounter, the children Israel demonstrated a rare and surprising case of maturity as is proven by this text.
Our Sages, of Blessed Memory, who were attentive to every nuance which emerges from the Text, drew up from the hidden treasures of this verse the following:
“Great is peace” for in reference to all the journeys the Text uses the plural verbs “they journeyed” and “they encamped”—they traveled with controversy [in their midst] and encamped with controversy [in their midst]—but once they reached Mount Sinai, they formed a solitary encampment, as the Text says “Israel encamped [singular] in front of the mountain.” Said the Holy One Blessed Be He: “This is the moment in which I give the Torah to Israel.” (Midrash Vayikrah Rabbah 9:9)
This was a moment of grace in the history of our people. It was a moment without controversy, without argument and without strife, which must be considered as miraculous. God foresaw this moment and took advantage of it to grant the Torah to his people (“this is the moment that I am giving.”)
This was the most appropriate moment. The aim of the Torah is to increase peace. As it is said in Proverbs “It ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (3:17) If it can be demonstrated that the foundation of peace existed amidst the people, even for a short time, then the way was open to the giving of the Torah.
There are 613 commandments in the Torah. No one individual can observe all of them. There are commandments that are limited to the priesthood; others to women and other groups. Only the people united as one are capable of raising up the burden of the entire Torah, at the moment when it functions “as one person with one heart” (Rashi on this verse).
And this moment of unity proves that they were on the right path. (Rabbi Moshe Garelik, Parshah uPishrah: B’rayhseet, Sh’mot. The 2 volumes of this work incorporate material that Rabbi Garelik produced for a weekly column that appeared in the Friday---pre-Shabbat—edition of the Israeli newspaper Maariv. )