Getting Torah Right Is All about Human Rights
D'var Torah for Shavuot 2012/5772 by Rabbi Joey Wolf, Havurah Shalom, Portland, Oregon
The stories of undocumented citizens whose families are disrupted abound, but why care? The victims of human trafficking, 12 and 13 year old girls in this country hint of a global economic model for prostitution, but why go there? There's a hunger strike with 1200 Palestinian incarcerated participants protesting Israeli administrative detention, but they bring it on themselves, right? We have our own dangerous Guantanamo prisoners whom Congress allows to await their fate without due process, but surely we have our own pressing needs that come first.
People who belong take precedence to others. But Edgwidge Danticat, the Haitian American writer, won't let her own uncle's story die, even though this docile 81 year old lost his life, as a result of his abysmal detainee experience on his way to becoming an American citizen. It didn't matter that he had throat cancer and could scarcely vocalize words. Freedom of expression counts for little, when people deny your human rights. This happens a lot in a world in which so many are in transit.
Okay, you'll say that we live in precarious times. So what's Jewish about concern for these drafty passageways, when a case could be made for making the house impenetrable? The answer lies within the arc between our own bewildering Pesach midnight escape and Sinai. You see, there's no vouchsafing Torah without looking back to the sea that stood in front of us. We wanted to navigate the current of human dignity, but we needed to establish a footing in the boat. Before that boat floats, it needs to be tethered to something secure. We all have our points of embarkation from which we proceed on our course.
The holiday of Shavuot is the one major festival whose date references another earlier event. The gift of Torah has no intrinsically right time. Shiv'a she'vuot tispor lach. "Seven sevens you'll need to count" from the defining moment of Pesach. On the other hand, Sinai is all process, bigger than the event itself. It reverberates, and we're forced repeatedly to recalibrate. It spills over dams, lights cities, heats conversations.
In the Sefer HaBahir, Rabbi Rehumai explains Moses' private quest on the mountain. There's disappointment on God's part after the golden calf, and there is disillusionment from our own side. Moses wants God to show him his stuff. He asks how is it that people who treat others callously get rewarded in this life, while innocent people suffer? The answer: It can take years to get it right. Davar tzeeva l'elef dor. Torah is something that emanates to the one thousandth generation, and it will compel deepening self-examination.
Shavuot, the feast of weeks, drives home the point that getting Torah right is all about human rights. What happens at the tick of the clock at Pesach will take many lifetimes to elucidate. The voice at Sinai demands that pharaohs be held accountable. Seven sevens – the language of getting the work completed. Until we get it right, Sinai dwells within us.