It’s amazing that each time I read the Passover story, something new hits me like a ton of bricks and deeper meaning is revealed. Does that happen for you as well?
For instance, one year I learned that in some Haggadot, Moses is barely featured as a way to downplay human “saving” of the people, and instead to show that God was the true source of redemption.
One year, in grad school, I had a seder in NYC with a bunch of random friends and upon realizing our families were from all over the world, we decided to tell our family’s stories of making exodus from our countries of origin and making our way to the U.S. — it was illuminating!
Children learn that the Passover story about not being mean like pharaoh, forgetting to say “please” and “thank you.” For their parents, it was an exercise in thinking about what values the story conveys and how we are going to transmit those traditions to our children.
Each year, we return to the stories, and each year, they mean something else to us. We go a little deeper, some other truth is revealed.
After the Passover story happened, of course, Sinai happened—we were given the Torah through Moses. I confess that my favorite version of this is the Ten Commandments movie which places such great importance on the receiving of the tablets etched in stone by fire.
Okay— I do also like that Mel brooks version— where Moses originally was given three tablets and accidentally dropped one.
So, was the WHOLE Torah given on Mt. Sinai? This is the connection to this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot.
There is a rabbinic opinion in the Talmud, the opinion of rabbis who lived almost 2000 years ago, who say that this week’s Torah portion was actually revealed to the Israelites at a later date than Sinai— and so were seven other parts of Torah. They suggest that these pieces were all drawn together and codified at a later date.
Specifically, they suggest that this particular section of revelation, a portion on purity laws and intimate relations, was given when we set up the tabernacle- when we started dwelling together and making community. Isn’t that an amazing idea?! That this part of the Torah was not given at Sinai, but later?
You thought the whole Torah was given at Sinai? Maybe.
But these ancient rabbis instead suggest that the truths of life and the profound meaning in the world cannot happen in one sitting. We are each part of an ever evolving conversation with our Creator, with the great mystery of life.
Like the Passover story, there is one way we relate to this mystery in youth, another one way in middle age, and another way in old age. Torah is constantly being revealed.
There is beauty of the idea that revelation continues year after year, generation after generation.
You know this feeling of revelation. Revelation occurs every time a moment in a sermon gives you that joy spark- that “aha!” moment. That moment where the ancient text meets your life today; when you know that you can put the teaching into practice.
Revelation occurs when you open a sacred text and are magically transported into a rabbinic argument over ethics— and you find that you have an opinion!
Each time we make new meaning in our lives and the lives of our congregational children, revelation occurs.
When we commit to a process of engagement — of showing up and making meaning for us in our time and in our day— we allow for the revelation to occur. And we are right in doing that— making meaning for our own time.
My favorite historically significant rabbi, Rabbi Samuel Holdheim, an early reformer 19th c Germany, validated this constant evolution of text, this constant revelation by affirming of the opinions of old: “in their day they were right; in our we are right.” Meaning: each generation must let revelation occur for themselves— to allow for truths to surface on their own and new depths achieved.
It is the sacred privilege and responsibility of every generation to engage in this way— as if at every moment we are on Sinai and about to receive Divine instruction— Torah.
A colleague of mine, Rabbi Rochelle Tulik, of this century, echoes these sentiments. She states:
“I believe strongly in the Reform philosophy that empowers each of us to build our own relationship with Judaism and the mitzvot (commandments). Reform Judaism asserts that every knowledgeable Jew has an equal claim to a personal understanding of what God wants. And I believe that we each have the ability, right, and in fact, responsibility to engage with Torah and tradition in a way that will make Judaism most meaningful in our lives.”
Each time we celebrate a young person’s bar or bat mitzvah, we pass them the Torah as if to say, “Here is the Torah. This is the profound meaning it has made in our lives. This is what we have learned from it. Now, it is your turn to discover truths and depths about life and living meaningfully— make it what you want.“
Then, we invite them to what the Torah means to them— and what it should mean to us in our generation. Authentically.
This is how we encourage our children to take over— to become the interpreters of tradition, and we make room for them to have their own moments of revelation. And then we sit back and learn from them what was revealed. This is why this enterprise is so precious to us. This is why we engage in Jewish life. And we will keep doing so.
The above is a reflection by Rabbi Heather Miller on this week's Torah portion, Parashat Acharei Mot, Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27. Please visit rabbiheathermiller.com to subscribe and follow on social media.