When I was 19, and a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a group of us went to climb Mount Sinai. Though I find it difficult to remember the simplest details from my everyday life, I recall, with great clarity, everything about that trip.
We arrive at the foot of the mountain, make camp and, after a dinner of stuffed cabbage from a can, we build a bonfire. We warm ourselves against the surprising desert chill, smear chocolate spread on matzah, tiny grains of sand getting caught in the backs of our throats, as we sing earnest, off-key versions of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Erev Shel Shoshanim, Hafinjan; and, when we exhaust our supply of Zionist standards, Fire and Rain, American Pie and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?
As the hours pass, our fellowship fortified by warm slugs of arak, we turn serious for a while. Someone tells the famous Talmudic legend: When God gave the Jews the Ten Commandments, He suspended Mount Sinai above them like a barrel and said: If you accept these commandments—fine, but if not, then here your grave shall be.
An intense debate ensues—the kind only college students have—about determinism, free will, the ego and super-ego. My friend David Trombka quotes Freud, someone else John Stuart Mill, a kid from Y.U. drops the name of Reb Moshe Feinstein and, in case we didn’t get the point that he goes to Y.U., he further cites some European rabbi none of us have heard of, whose name and very existence we’re sure he’s concocted solely to support his argument.
The dialogue is loud and utterly pretentious, but also kind of wonderful. Our collective understanding of the world wouldn’t fill a thimble, but what we lack in experience we make up for in exuberance. When each of us speaks, it’s with the conviction of one who knows that anything is possible. Our appetites are insatiable: for knowledge; for enlightenment; for adventure; for friendship; for love. We are glorious in our hard, healthy bodies, glorious in our youth.
Smitten by a shapely blonde with lovely eyes, who has made it clear she wants nothing to do with me, I recite a passage, by memory, from Tchernichovsky’s epic poem, Man is Nothing But; hoping to impress her:
Man is nothing but the soil of a small country,
nothing but the shape of his native landscape,
nothing but what his ears recorded
when they were new and really heard,
what his eyes saw, before they had their fill of seeing—
everything a wondering child comes across
on the dew-softened paths,
stumbling over every lump of earth, every old stone,
while in a hidden place in his soul, unknown to him,
there’s an altar set up
from which the smoke of his sacrifice rises each day
to the kingdom of the sky, to the stars…
I look across the fire’s dying embers, hoping she has seen my tour de force, hoping to stare into those lovely eyes. Such passion! Such emotion! My mother is right: I am special. Any girl would be lucky to have me. But I see Miss New Jersey of 1979 has fallen asleep. Somehow, she is even prettier in repose. I decide I will recite Tchernichovsky to her on our wedding night.
Woozy from the liquor, I soon doze off as well. And, immediately, I am dreaming I’m there; standing among the 600,000. I feel the ground quake, see the mountain soar into the sky. I am filled with dread and wonder, my life will never be the same. I hear the voice of God fill the cosmos; deafening, but somehow, soft as a caress: “WILL YOU OBEY MY COMMANDMENTS?” I do not hesitate, I answer in unison with the others, accepting the Torah sight unseen: “Naaseh venishma. I will do and I will listen. Hear O’ Israel, The Lord Our God, the Lord is One.”
And, at that exact moment of rapture, Trombka kicks me hard in the ribs. It’s 2am, time to start climbing.
With the moon lighting our way, we begin the ascent on wobbly legs and, at daybreak, sweaty, tired and hungover, we stand on the peak of Mount Sinai. To the east we watch the sun rise over the mountains of Midian—modern-day Saudi Arabia—and to the west we gaze in silent awe as the moon disappears over the ancient Land of Egypt.
We are privileged Americans with fancy hiking boots, our young lives just waiting to be lived. This place is a box to be checked off, another experience in a year of self-absorbed living before entering the world of jobs and marriage and kids and mortgages and receding hairlines and colonoscopies. But, at that extraordinary moment, I feel connected to the past in a way I never have before.
I close my eyes and am back in my dream. I see the Jewish nation, gathered together, waiting to become the Chosen People.
It’s a time of silent contemplation. All temporal desires have been set aside in anticipation of the sacred event. For this single moment in history, the Jews are unified in mind, body and spirit and it is unimaginably peaceful. An unassailable pact has been formed, predicated on God’s solemn promise in Parashat Yitro: “If you obey Me and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a treasure out of all peoples…And you shall be to Me a kingdom of princes and a holy nation.”
Forget Freud, John Stuart Mill, even Reb Moshe; the truth is in the vista before me. And, at that extraordinary moment, I understand that God has brought me to this time and place to bear witness.
I tell you this story because the giving of the Torah at Sinai is, ultimately, about the never ending Jewish obligation to validate the unshakeable, infinite bond between God and the Jewish people.
But how do we get from there, to creating a Jewish historical chain that begins at Sinai and extends, unbroken, until the end of time?
Well, for one thing, the Torah is explicit in the importance of keeping the memory of Sinai alive. In Parashat Nitzavim, God says to Moshe: “Not with you alone do I seal this covenant, but with whoever is here and with whoever is not here today.” A few passages later, speaking of the individual who forgets Sinai, Moshe says: “God will not forgive him, for God’s wrath and jealousy will smoke against that man… and God will erase that man’s name from the heavens.”
But it’s not enough to simply tell the story. The Jews of each generation must relive the moment of deliverance, because the stories of it are too fantastic to be taken at face value. If future generations did not have this obligation, were not forced to suspend disbelief and reason, were not instructed to actually insert themselves into the experience, Sinai would eventually become nothing more than a legend; like a story from Greek mythology; interesting, perhaps, but of no practical significance.
Many centuries later, during the Spanish Inquisition, this became a hotly debated philosophical and theological dilemma among the Jews of Spain. In mortal peril to the Inquisition, they cried out: “Why risk our lives for a promise made by ancient characters, who could not contemplate the danger involved in attempting to live as a Jew in Spain?” The Abarbanel, who lived during this terrible period in Jewish history had little sympathy for such complaints, declaring that the obligation to serve God is permanent, because the Jews permanently enjoy benefits from accepting the Torah.
Nevertheless, there is free will, of course. The Jews of Spain were neither the first nor last Jews in history to struggle with identity in the face of persecution. And every Jew in every generation has the freedom to abandon the Torah’s precepts entirely. But, as much as Sinai is an historical event, it’s also a state of mind, a state of being. A Jew can take communion, genuflect until his knees bleed, wear a crucifix covered in precious stones.
But, even that individual was at Sinai.
I recently read an essay by journalist Jane Eisner with the endearing title “Why Am I Irrationally Worried About Kitnyoth?” in which she tells of a trip she made during Passover of 1982 to meet refuseniks in the Soviet Union. Eisner, a secular Jew, did not observe kashrut but writes about a kind of epiphany she experienced: “the piercing moment for me was when I met refusenik Lev Elbert one evening in Kiev, just as he arrived home from work. A bear of a man, he had forgotten to bring his kosher food with him and had not eaten all day. ‘My God,’ I thought. ‘This brave Jew is sacrificing for rules immeasurably easier for me to follow. What was my excuse?’ From then on, I committed to join him, if only to act in solidarity.”
That each of us was there, that each of us cried out na’aseh venishma might as well be coded in our DNA. And, while the Abarbanel’s position may not have resonated with those Spanish Jews that embraced the Church, the Anusim, clandestine Jews, worshipped in secret and kept alive the memory of Sinai. They found a way of ensuring that the unbroken chain remained intact. Notwithstanding the danger, they bore witness.
But this is nothing new for us. We Jews navigate the bloody rivers of history; covered in the ashes of children, like snowflakes that never melt. And, though there is not a single day in the calendar that we could not choose to recall our misfortune, if any event in Jewish history requires us to bear witness, it is the Shoah.
In 1944, when the first reports of the Final Solution reached America, the poet Muriel Rukeyser published a poem called Letter to the Front. She wrote:
To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit…
The poet understood that choosing to abandon the gift—specifically, that which distinguishes the Jew from every other people—is and always has been the real existential threat. The poem is a rallying cry, exhorting the last remnant of the world’s Jews to honor their history, to honor the martyred millions, to honor Sinai.
Primo Levi, the author and poet, who survived Auschwitz, put it even more directly, in a poem that appeared in his book Survival in Auschwitz:
You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find warm food
And friendly faces when you return home…
Never forget that this has happened.
Remember these words.
Engrave them in your hearts,
When at home or in the street,
When lying down, when getting up.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your houses be destroyed,
May illness strike you down,
May your offspring turn their faces from you.
And beyond such indictments or any obligation we may feel to experience this type of personal connection, affirming the covenant in memory of the Six Million, serves as a declaration of solidarity and commitment to our historical beginnings. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puts it beautifully in his book, Crisis and Covenant. He writes: “The affirmation of Jewish life after the Holocaust is itself testimony that the covenant survives and that the voice of God continues to be heard…by the contemporary heirs of those who stood at Sinai.”
On Yom Hashoah, Jews throughout the world gather in their respective places of worship to declare such affirmation of Sinai. In not so many years, the survivors will be gone from this world and it will fall upon us to tell their stories. To be visible. To bear witness in their stead.
At our sedarim, we faithfully declare: “Bekhol dor vador, chayav adam leer’oth et atzmo ke’eelu hoo yatza me Mitzrayim” (In every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt). How many of us are willing to replace the word Mitzrayim with the word Auschwitz? Can any of us put ourselves in that gruesome place, that unholy place: the antithesis of Sinai?
Yet, the Shoah was no less a seminal event in our history; one, I would argue, we are obligated to internalize as we internalize Sinai. We owe that much to the victims and survivors. They have the right to expect of us and of future generations that we testify:
Bekhol dor vador, chayav adam leer’oth et atzmo ke’eelu hoo yatza me Auschwitz.
But, it’s equally important to contextualize such a heavy message; to understand that, even post-Auschwitz, most memories are—and ought to be—focused on far less lofty subjects than apocryphal, hovering mountains or the pain and suffering of the Jewish people. Such enormous events are deeply ingrained, yes, but life is just as much about the little things. These little things—intimate moments, fleeting memories—are much harder to recall, much harder to relive; which is ironic because there are so many more of them.
For me, it’s things like bread and butter. Long, hot showers. Taking a nap. Waking from a nap. Getting a laugh from one of my kids, from my granddaughter. My T-shirt, drenched after a workout. The way a basketball feels as it leaves my fingertips. The first, the fifth, the tenth draft of a poem I may never finish.
I think a lot about the little things; so much so that I wrote a poem called It’s the Little Things, which I’d like to share with you now. The poem may, on its surface, seem lighthearted. But at its core it describes a kind of brit me’at or small covenant between two people, similar in many respects to the kind of loving, eternal connection established between God and the Jewish Nation at Sinai.
I dream of the grand gesture: of showing
you the extent of my love by pulling you out
of a burning building or handing myself over
to a menacing gunman holding you hostage.
Take me instead, I plead and though the
terrorist has barely a shred of humanity,
he lets you go, moved by my act of selflessness.
As you leave, our eyes meet and, with a look,
I tell you, if I do not get out of this alive,
find someone else, remarry, be happy.
This is part of the grand gesture. But your look
in return says, don’t be silly, I could never replace
you, who loved me more than life. I’d rather die
a despondent widow, remembering your sacrifice
every day of my wretched, lonely existence.
I love you. I’ve always loved you. I’m yours forever.
At breakfast, I tell you about my dream.
You laugh out loud—you cannot stop laughing—
and when you finally catch your breath you say:
Will you please take out the garbage, like I asked
last night; my protector, my grand gesturer?
As I leave the table to do as you ask, not at all deflated,
I think to myself, that’s a laugh worth dying for.
Commitment. Love. And, most of all, memory. These are the enduring lessons of Sinai and we experience them not only in connection to the grandeur and cataclysms of Jewish history but every day in our own little lives. We dream, we laugh, we take out the garbage. And, thus, remember who we are and why we are here.
Elie Wiesel writes: “memory is a blessing… it creates bonds between the present and past, between individuals and groups. It is because I remember our common beginnings, that I move closer to my fellow human beings… what would be the future of man, if it were devoid of memory?”
I treasure my memories of Sinai; my friends’ voices around the campfire, the way the arak made my head spin, reciting the words of a great poet beneath the infinite, star-filled sky.
But I do not need to climb a rock to remind myself of God’s presence. I simply look into my wife’s eyes and remember. And, if the light is just so, I can see the moon as it disappears over the ancient Land of Egypt.