Years ago, I worked in the national office of a Jewish youth organization overseeing a summer travel program and many other educational endeavors. One program brought together over 1,000 Jewish teens in a major city for a week over Winter break. Among my responsibilities was to create and implement the educational programs for the teens and staff. Each year we had a theme that was the focus of programs that week and for the following year. I still recall the theme of one of our best conventions; "Mitzvah means Commandment." The goal was to help the teens and staff members understand the important Hebrew word - Mitzvah - and what it truly means. For years, that was the definition I went with and taught to students; Mitzvah is a commandment given to us by God in our Torah and we have an obligation to follow all of the Torah commandments and Rabbinic commandments.
Years later, while studying in Rabbinical School, I recall a teacher taking the word Mitzvah in a new direction. He said, "the mitzvot are the language we use to communicate with God." In other words, Judaism is designed to help every individual develop a relationship with God and the greater community. The way that we strengthen that relationship and the way we show our devotion to God is by doing as many mitzvot as we can.
I share all of this with you today because in our Torah Reading for this Shabbat, we will return to the moment when God gave us the mitzvot - the moment at Mt. Sinai. Every year when I teach this Parasha, I remind the congregation that the events in this week's reading includes the one moment in human history when God revealed Godself to humanity - the one moment that God spoke directly to the entire people. There is an ongoing debate as to whether God gave us the entire Torah at Sinai or that God only spoke the Ten Commandments or that perhaps God gave both the Written Torah and Oral Tradition. No matter how we understand this story it is always worthy of a closer look and worthy of some time to connect it to our contemporary lives.
I encourage you to join us tomorrow morning for our Shabbat morning service as we sing together, pray together and study together. I will be sharing some midrashim and modern essays on aspects of this Torah Reading including the role of Jethro in the story and how Moses' father in law had an influence on Moses and the Israelite people. We will also spend time talking about how our understanding of the Torah evolves to this day and how the rituals of public Torah Reading were created and how they have evolved and been adapted to every new generation.
If you cannot join us, I encourage you to take some time to read the events of Mt. Sinai on your own. Focus on the two powerful chapters of Exodus 19 and 20. Chapter 19 is the preparation for Revelation and then Chapter 20 is God presenting the commandments to the people. Perhaps you will notice something you never saw before. Perhaps you will find a new way to connect these stories to your own life. And perhaps you will contemplate your own definition of the word Mitzvah - Commandment, language to communicate with God, Instruction, Mandate, or perhaps something else.
I wish you all a wonderful Shabbat - may it be a time for reflection, inspiration and renewal.
Rabbi Adam Feldman