What we can learn from the lessons of Sinai in a time of Covid

(Photo: Unsplash/Sincerely Media)

Today, as we morph into spring (despite flurries of snow here and there), and the days last much longer, we reach the Torah portion of Yitro (Exodus – 18:1 – 20:23).

Isn't it amazing that the peak of the revelation at Sinai takes place in a biblical book named after a pagan from Midian, called Yitro (Jethro in English), who had previously been an advisor to the wicked Pharaoh.

Especially if we ponder the fact that, in stark contrast, there is no book named after our greatest prophet, Moshe Rabbenu (Moses our teacher), who brought the people of Israel to this point in their journey. And Yitro also gave his son-in-law, Moses, some very good advice. If you are in a leadership position – he tells him - it is essential that you have gifted people to help you, otherwise you will end up having a nervous breakdown (Exodus 18: 14-23).

And according to the first great European biblical exegete, Rashi (1040-1105), commenting on this passage, there are four qualities that are needed in leaders and judges. Leaders and judges should be people of substantial ability. They should be G-d fearing and pursue truth. They should not be swayed by financial gain. They should be able to enthuse and enable others.

How many of our own religious and political leaders today possess even one of these four traits, do you think?

And equally astonishing is the fact that G-d's revelation at Sinai was given to every single man, woman and child, whatever their rank or status (Exodus 20:15). The Sinai experience was a grassroots, bottom-up, non-hierarchical experience, in which the principles of G-d's 613 sayings to the Jewish people, and 7 sayings to the gentile world, were experienced and internalized.

However, it is very clear that G-d expects His people to work in partnership with Him. To this end, teachers, and educators, people who care about others and are constantly learning themselves, are essential for G-d's revelation to be effective. Not for Judaism the idea of a hierarchy, with priests and experts at the top. We have all seen where that type of arrangement has led in the past, and, very sadly, often still does today.

At Sinai, G-d made a deal with the Jewish people and gave them a book. The deal was that every man, woman and child would study this book on a daily basis, and this immersion in the text would then lead to the 613 principles of connection with G-d being transmitted and reinterpreted from one generation to the next. G-d's deal with the Jewish people is known in Hebrew as Brit (also the word for circumcision of an 8-day old male baby) and the book is known as the Torah (which in Hebrew means 'direction').

A parable best illustrates the importance G-d lays on human interpretations based on the principles laid out at Sinai.

A man lives on a mountain and is happy to exist on kernels of raw wheat.

The man then encounters some visitors who offer him a slice of bread for the first time in his life. He really likes it.

Another group of travellers then visit and offer him Shabbat challah bread baked with eggs and honey. The man is wary of this apparent delicacy and instead asks about the weather in the valley below.

And the final group of climbers arrive with the gift of a chocolate cake, replete with marzipan icing, and dotted on the top with sliced almonds. The man is so overwhelmed with this unexpected and sophisticated bounty that, completely thrown off his bearings, he rushes back up to the top of the mountain, where he once again reverts to chewing his kernels, vowing never again to venture down off his heavenly peak.

What is the meaning of this parable?

The meaning is that G-d expects us to be immersed in the world. G-d expects us not to stick to the obvious and often infantile interpretation of his Torah, represented by kernels of raw wheat. G-d would like us to 'bake our bread', gradually move onto challah and finally top it all with a delicious and sophisticated cake, which necessitates encounter, travel, shopping, buying, baking and what Churchill called 'blood, toil, tears and sweat.'

Yes, G-d is in favour not of perfection but of 'trial and error' in the work of this world.

G-d deliberately gave us a brain, which in his masterpiece, the Commentary on the Torah, the great Spanish Jewish exegete Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) called 'the angel between G-d and humanity'. G-d therefore wants us, expects us, to labour to understand sophistication and science, poetry, philosophy, translation, music and medicine.

G-d wants us to learn how to deal with a world in which crises often crop up in our lives. And most of all, G-d is in favour of cooperation. Not for nothing are we expected to study the Torah not on our own but with a partner (known in Hebrew as a chavruta). We need other people with whom we can argue and disagree on a daily basis. Argument and disagreement are the spice of life, just like the almonds on top of the cake – essential therefore for the improvements and progress which are also G-d's desire for us.

This has come home to us in a very pointed way during the past year. The Covid situation which has affected the entire world has made cooperation and learning from others essential. In some ways Covid has, ironically maybe, brought the world closer together. The State of Israel has led the way by anticipating the disaster and ordering medicines very early on, as well as offering to publicize its data to the entire world in order to help others. In Israel those who are reluctant to make the leap into the unknown and to be inoculated have been visited by local mayors who have sat with them and introduced music into the proceedings, as well as offering Covid-safe synagogue services to those who want them. The Jewish State leads the world in medical digitalization and her population has benefited from this progress in science and technology.

But science and technology are not enough. We have seen in recent Jewish history how science and technology have also been used to destroy. What is the main ingredient of the teaching from Sinai that should prevent the misuse of the fruits of our brain-power? The main teaching from Sinai must always be 'choose life'. And it is, ironically, Israel's experience during only 72 years of existence in having to pull out all the stops to save the lives of their entire population in one war after another, that has made her so effective in providing life-saving immunizations this time around. For when someone or some neighbouring power is bent on your entire destruction .....

And this is why the accompanying prophetic reading for this upcoming Shabbat includes the famous words uttered by the prophet Isaiah in the 8th century BCE about the paramount importance of children for the future of the world (Isaiah 9:5-6): 'For a child has been born for us; a son has been given to us, and authority will rest upon his shoulder.'

For G-d at Sinai – echoed later on by Isaiah - is not concerned with kings and popes, priests and nobles, dictators and potentates. What G-d is interested in is parents and children, communities, outreach, learning, small acts of kindness, and how one generation hands down their wisdom to the next, who then take things further.

What G-d at Sinai is saying to the world today is 'I can give you, all nearly 8 billion of you, the building blocks, but you, My creation, are responsible for doing the rest and transmitting the fruits of your wisdom both to the rest of the world and to the younger generation so that they can carry on My and your good work for the betterment of the whole planet.'

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.