Sinai. I have to think it was a gathering like no other. Years ago, I found this lithograph that I just love. It is titled The Ten Commandments, and it is an illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company.
I look at this image and think to myself, I wonder if this was the blueprint for the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. There’s a whole lot happening here. The clouds, the mountain, the people - so many people. The image was inspired by the Torah portion that Jews all over the world read on
Yom Kippur morning from the book of Deuteronomy.
An egalitarian paraphrasing of the passage reads, “You stand this day, all of you, before God. Your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the people of Israel, your children, your spouses, even the stranger within your camp, from the woodchopper to the water drawer – to enter into the covenant of God, which your God is concluding with you this day, with it’s sanctions; to the end that God may establish you this day as God’s people and be your God, as God promised you and swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, (and your mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah). I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but with those who came before you, with those who are standing here with us this day before our God, and with those of you who are not yet here with us this day. - Deuteronomy 29:9-14
I think this might be our very first inclusion statement. EVERYONE was there. People in positions of power and people of great wisdom. People whose jobs were the most menial in the community. There were women. Children. Elders. The sum of the people of Israel. There’s a great midrash I love inspired by this line specifically. If you’ve participated in the Jewish Learning Fellowship, you’ve heard this. It’s this line - ‘the sum of the people of Israel’. Because in referring back to the passage from Deuteronomy, it’s spelled out that the covenant was sworn to “your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, (and your mothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah).” The midrash goes on to share that the sum of the people of Israel, the children of Israel, are the matriarchs and patriarchs, and that Yisrael is an acronym for their names.
Yud - Yitzhak and Yaakov
Sin - Sarah
Resh - Rachel and Rivkah
Aleph - Avraham
Lamed - Leah
So by extension, if we consider ourselves the people of Israel, we are the descendants of and recipients of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. I also deeply appreciate the panoramic landscape of who was there. It wasn’t just all those folks at Sinai. It was also the people who came before them, and those not yet with them that day - the descendants of the people of Israel.
I think this passage is deeply rooted in a concept called Hanhagah L’Dorot, or Generational Leadership. I think to myself, about those folks at Sinai - was there thoughtfulness around their ancestors, those who endured the Exodus who helped get them to that day, and didn’t make it? Did they think about their loved ones who were no longer living, and think about how much they would have appreciated sharing that moment? Did young mothers stand hand in hand with their children, and think about how that moment would affect their children, their grandchildren, generations they likely couldn’t even have imagined?
I’d like to think that on Yom Kippur, this is the perfect moment to assess where we are today - emotionally, spiritually, doing the best we can with the resources we have. And make the space to think about the people and places and experiences that helped us get to this day. And then think about what we want for our future, the Jewish journey you are each uniquely creating every day. Where are you on your panoramic journey of Jewish life?
I often joke that I was the only Jewish Liberal Arts major to graduate from Purdue. Maybe? I did have to take a “Physics for Liberal Arts Majors” course in order to graduate. It was in that class that I learned all about a fulcrum, and since then, it has become a basic tenet of my leadership toolkit. The idea of generational leadership is as simple as finding balance on a see-saw.
I think it’s human nature to want to find that balance right in the middle of the see-saw, directly over the fulcrum. However, if you were to do that, to stand directly over that spot with your feet together, it is impossible to maneuver the plank parallel to the ground. You’ll fall.
However, if one spreads their feet out ever so slightly in each direction, having ‘one foot leaning into the past and the other towards the future’, with work, patience, and tenacity, one can balance the plank parallel to the ground – and, by extension, find balance in the now, that also makes space to honor the past and aspire towards the future.
I think we need a Hillel see-saw.
So as we prepare to hear these words so beautifully read or chanted this morning, I encourage you to spend some time today and think. Think about where you are today. I’d like you to make space to acknowledge some of the people or places or experiences that helped get you here. And I’d ask you to think about where you want to be - tomorrow, next month, next year on the 9th of Tishrei. As Adam mentioned last night, Yom Kippur 2023 is already on the calendar. As we perform acts of teshuva, I encourage you to return to this panoramic view of your Jewish experience over and over again. I am wishing you only blessings on your unique journey, and I am so grateful that Purdue Hillel is one of your stops along the way.
Melissa Frey | Executive Director, Purdue Hillel
Yom Kippur Sermon 5783
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