Torah in the Desert- Shavuot

Of all the places on earth that God could have chosen for giving the Torah our ancestors, why did God choose to give the Torah in the barren wilderness of the Sinai desert? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for the giving of the Torah to have taken place in Jerusalem? Or anywhere else in Eretz Yisrael for that matter? Why, davka, did God choose to give the Torah in the desert?

The Desert
Hazal asked this very question and they came up with many explanations. As it turns out they believed that the desert was the ideal place for God to give the Torah. Through midrash Hazal teach us that if the Torah had been given in Eretz Yisrael it would have been disastrous. If it was given in the land of the tribe of Dan, then the leaders of Dan would say: The Torah belongs to us. If it was given in the land of the tribe of Reuven then they would say the same. In fact, if it was given anywhere in Eretz Yisrael our ancestors would have said that the Torah was meant for Jews and Jews alone. God gave the Torah in the desert so that all humanity and all creation would know that Torah is for everyone. While it was given to the Israelites, the messages and teachings of Torah are meant for all humanity.
At The Davis Academy we teach our children and our families that the Torah is for everyone. We unroll the Torah scroll for Simchat Torah and all of our parents and children sit inside. We learn how to write letters in the Torah scroll with a sofer, and all of our students learn to chant from the Torah. Our teachers help each child make their own personal connection to Torah, finding the relevance of her ancient words in our modern times. At The Davis Academy we teach that the Torah can be a lifelong eitz chayyim and source of inspiration whether you want to be a scientist, an artist, a fireman, an astronaut, a rabbi, or a lawyer. At The Davis Academy we teach that the Torah’s wisdom is meant for all of us.

On Israel- Ryan Blitstein, Dr. Michael A. Meyer, and Dr. Jane West Walsh

Award winning journalist Ryan Blitstein is Executive Director of SCE (The Susan Crown Exchange), where he leads the organization’s strategy and grantmaking. He writes:

israel is the long-lost fraternal twin from whom i was separated at birth. we are deeply connected by blood and spirit, yet we barely understand each other. every time i see her, i feel we are growing further apart. everyone asks: ‘you’re twins! how could you not be best friends?'”

The Burnt House, Old City of Jerusalem


Dr. Michael A. Meyer, the Adolph S. Ochs Professor of Jewish History at HUC/JIR Cincinnati shares:

“Yisrael–Jacob’s struggle with God gave us a name deeply embedded in our nature as Jews.  We Jews have always been strugglers–to stay alive and to justify God’s troubling relationship to us.  Sixty-four years ago our state took on that name after a long Zionist struggle to bring it about.  Medinat Yisrael struggles still and we struggle, as well, in our unconditional commitment to it.”


Joel Rohr, "The Windmill in Yemin Moshe, Jerusalem"


Dr. Jane West Walsh, the URJ’s Day School Specialist and Executive Director of PARDES: Day Schools of Reform Judaism beckons us to revisit some favorite words of poetry:

“Take a moment to wander quietly through the courtyard by the windmill in Yemin Moshe, in Jerusalem, with Israel’s beloved poet, Yehuda Amichai z’l.

This windmill never ground flour.
It ground holy air and Bialik’s
Birds of longing, it ground
Words and ground time, it ground
Rain and even shells
But it never ground flour.

Now it’s discovered us,
And grinds our lives day by day
Making out of us the flour of peace
Making out of us the bread of peace
For the generation to come.”

(Translated by Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfit. Taken from “Poems of Jerusalem” Schocken Publishing House Ltd.)



Shavuot- Dynamism, Flexibility, Vision

“The dynamic is much more characteristic of this people than the static, the flexible conception more than the exact organization, the vision more than the system.”
Leo Baeck, This People Israel: The Meaning of Jewish Existence
1957 German Stamp Commemorating Leo Baeck

   As Shavuot approaches I find myself reading from Leo Baeck’s profoundly moving, This People Israel. Written before and during the Shoah (in some cases on scraps of paper and from within Theresienstadt), This People Israel is a book that warrants close study. Let’s briefly unpack the above quotation…
   Dynamic/Static: From Sinai until today Judaism has remained a living tradition. Its authority derives from the fact of its ongoing relevance in the modern world. As times change, Judaism changes. Though much of Jewish tradition is “static”, Judaism’s interaction with our changing world is meant to be dynamic. While Judaism is undeniably a “tradition” and therefore craves a certain measure of consistency and continuity, the excitement and potential of Judaism emerge only in the context of dynamism.
   Flexible Concept/Exact Organization: Judaism isn’t a bureaucracy. It isn’t a rigid, impersonal, series of considerations. Judaism is flexible, or at least it’s supposed to be. It should be tolerant of humanness, of mistakes, of failures, of weaknesses of will, of lapses. It should also be tolerant of people who don’t always make the best choices and those who deviate from the letter of the law. Being flexible is different from being weak, shallow, or lacking a spine. Flexibility means the recognition that there’s a gap between perfection and human aspiration, with the later being, in many ways, more beautiful. Judaism is flexible and resilient, rather than rigid and brittle. Flexibility and resilience are important features of Judaism both throughout history and today.
   Vision/System: As someone who is fundamentally skeptical of all “isms” I love the idea that Judaism is a “vision” and not a “system.” Sure, Judaism attempts to describe and systematize the world, but “vision” is the guiding principle rather than “system.” When I think of “system” I think of a self-contained, self-organized, self-aware structure. Systems crave stability and strive to be comprehensive and all-encompassing. Things that threaten a system or undermine its integrity are often marginalized or even excluded from the system, as they threaten the status quo and established order. “Vision” is able to absorb and incorporate difference and divergent thinking. Vision is enriched by the marketplace of ideas and through the critiques and challenges of iconoclasts and varied perspectives. Rather than attempting to harmonize and incorporate, vision engages ideas, gleans from them, and transforms itself. I am interested in the Judaism of vision and in celebrating visions of Judaism. The prophets didn’t experience “systems” they experienced and prophesied “visions.” So too may we in our own day.

In honor of Shavuot– Leo Baeck on the meaning of Hokhmah

From Rabbi Leo Baeck, This People Israel, “The Revelation”

“Wisdom: Hokhmah and Sophia”

“The Hebrew word hokhmah is basically untranslatable; it was a word that received a completely new content from the spirit of this people. The first of the translations, the Greek, could only convey it through its word sophia, wisdom. But our word hokhmah reaches further and deeper. It speaks of that which is the power in the world and of that which human power shall be. As it bears upon the world, hokhmah, is the creative, artistic principle of the personal which has entered into him to give him the ability to see himself, which forms and fashions him so that he may become what he should be. Hokhmah expresses the final connection between that which continues its enduring influence in a world of constant flux and that which is constantly to influence onward-moving man. World and man as well as idea and reality, metaphysical and ethical, are united here. In the world, hokhmah is therefore that which gives it totality, which makes it the cosmos. In man, it is that which makes him a personality, that in which his creative traits find themselves united. Thus his drive for knowledge which turns toward everything, his breadth of feeling opening itself to all, and his moral readiness which accepts every task become one. Knowledge, feeling and desire, understanding, experience and action, in a sense, spirit and soul, are a totality in hokhmah. Man, coming into his own, the actualization of the total man, the fulfillment of God’s likeness is represented in it.”