Allow me to share with you a true story. Many years ago, when I was a rabbinical student in Israel, there was a Knesset member who served on the education committee named Shulamit Aloni. She would later become the Minister of Education of the State of Israel. A self-avowed, ardent and proud secular Jew, her stated goal was to disentangle "church and state," so to speak. You can well imagine that she was not particularly adored by the so called, religious parties.
Purportedly, she had a rather trenchant and heated argument with a fellow Knesset member – himself a rabbi. Feeling particularly assaulted, she blurted out to him, "Rabbi, you can disagree with me and even disagree vehemently, but I insist that you treat me with respect. After all, we stood together at Sinai … even if it didn't happen."
My friends, Sinai happened. Indeed, more than 50 percent of the world's population, more than 3 billion people – Jews, Christians and Muslims – claim to be part of a sacred narrative that began at a mountain called Sinai. Rabbi Harold Kushner, writing about the moment of Sinai in To Life, bluntly opines, "Whether you take it literally or not, at the very least you must take it seriously."
We left Egypt as a people of Jews in order to journey to Sinai to become a Jewish people – a people with a purpose. You all know the real estate adage: the three most essential ingredients are "location, location, location." In choosing this mountain as the locus of revelation, our tradition is emphatically asserting – even if "men are from Mars and women are from Venus" – that all Jews are from Sinai!
Location means more than geography; it means orientation. Toward where do we as individuals look for sources of spirituality and inspiration? Toward where do we as a community look for meaning and purpose? Answer: Toward Sinai.
Sinai was the moment in which a marriage took place between God and the Jewish people. It is the place where a sacred contract was made between the Holy One and his people, the people Israel.
Recently, Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua made some disparaging remarks about Diaspora Jewish life. Essentially, he said that it was less relevant and meaningful than Israeli Jewish life.
I would respond: Though Mr. Yehoshua lives in Beersheva and not Bryn Mawr (or Berlin or Budapest), our identity was molded from a covenant offered at Sinai. Our sages claim that Torah was revealed in a desert – outside of the Land of Israel – because Torah is not bordered by or relegated to any particular land; any passport gains you access. As the illustrious Saadia Gaon observed, "We are a people only by virtue of Torah."
I have always been fascinated with the Arabic name for Mount Sinai. It is Jebal Musa -the "Mountain of Moses." Why is it not called, Jebal Alla, the "Mountain of God"? I think our cousins are on to something.
Yes, Sinai is about the kol gadol v'lo yasaf – the great voice which, according to the Targum Onkelos, is constant and continuous – the Jebal Alla, if you will. But it's also about the response of Moses and his people, the Jebal Musa. The partnership created at Sinai is, in the words of Dr. Jonathan Sacks, "radical then and radical now."
Radical then because God acknowledges that the world is incomplete, and needs human partnership for betterment and refinement. Radical now because the current genocide in Darfur and the "promise" of a future genocide emanating from Iran remind us that the world is not yet redeemed. The world still needs the Jews to keep on being Jews, and we Jews need to keep on engaging with our peoples sacred conversation that began at a mountain called Sinai. Indeed, location matters!
Rabbi David Gutterman is executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.