This Shabbat we read a double parshah: Behar/Behukotai. It begins by saying that God spoke to Moses at the mountain. The word ‘behar’ means both ‘at the mountain’ and ‘in the mountain’, which clearly raises questions. For me, I always think of the piano teacher I had when I was growing up.
My piano teacher was an avid church going woman, and she and I would have great conversations about religious practice. Her social engagements (as she put it) always revolved around her church groups. She was the first person in my life for whom I would attach the phrase ‘prim and proper’. My piano teacher showed me how to create tea essence, rather than quickly use a teabag (an inexcusable shortcut in her eyes). Every now and then I could glimpse her private life, but only brief glimpses. Once, she told me that her brother was a pilot in the Canadian Air Force, and had been killed in the Second World War. For a moment she paused, and then it was back to our lesson. Our worlds were so different, but over the years there were wonderful intersecting moments.
The only time we had a disconnect of understanding was when I had to book my music theory exams. Every date she mentioned was a Saturday. I told her I can never take that exam on a Saturday. I outlined the problems getting to the Conservatory on Shabbat, as well as the problem of writing. I asked if I could take the exam orally, assuming I could walk there. No variations on the exam were possible. Rules were rules. My teacher felt frustrated – she couldn’t understand why I couldn’t negotiate around the problem with a religious leader. She asked me why my rabbi wouldn’t just give me a dispensation to write the exam. That was our moment of disconnect –I didn’t understand what a dispensation from a religious obligation meant..
I never took those exams, and after all our years of preparation together she felt I had let her down. I couldn’t explain my world to her, and she couldn’t explain hers.. I think of her when we read this week’s Torah portion, parshat Behar/Bechukotai. The very beginning of the parshah states: “When Moses was at Mount Sinai (behar)”, which is a correct translation, but ignores the literal layers of the word ‘behar’. It means both ‘at the mountain’, as well as ‘in the mountain’. Revelation at Sinai is not an experience that is lived, it is an experience, like the mountain, that is entered.
At one point, Moses asks to see God, and God says no. Instead, God tells Moses to enter a nook in the rock, and God will pass over Moses’ face – Moses will then feel the Divine Essence. God could have done the same thing while Moses stood in open spaces, but God instructed Moses to stand inside the mountain. Some things can only be felt and understood while standing within them. The revelation at Sinai, and ‘behar’, tell us that our Judaism is best understood while we stand within it.
The Torah reading this week invites us to enter our Judaism and ask all our questions while standing inside, protected with the solid rocks of ancestry. From that position we build bridges to everything around us and the world connects.
I’d like to wish everyone a sweet and peaceful Shabbat –our Jewish time to regroup, rest, and reinvigorate.