The Two-Way Street: Shavuot 5778 / 2018

Rabbis Burton L. Visotzky and Joel Shaiman
on May 17, 2018

Most people are familiar with the idea of the Torah — the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. All synagogues have a physical Torah scroll that is read during prayer services. This “Written Torah” tells our story from ancient times, and its sacred words help to define our relationship with God, with each other and for many of us, our relationship with the Land of Israel.

Yet many are less familiar with the more expansive version of Torah. It includes not only the Written Torah of the five books, but also the Oral Torah, the teachings, interpretations and extrapolations on the Bible offered by Rabbis and other Jews in our communities over 2500 years. This living Torah that simultaneously engages us and is written by us contains sacred texts, laws and stories that inspire us as individuals and as a community. This Torah provides a Jewish lens through which we can examine the issues we face in today’s complicated world.

Consider this written text from one part of the Oral Torah: a story from the Babylonian Talmud, dated roughly to the 6th century CE.

At the funeral of Rav Huna, his disciple Rabbi Abba eulogized:

“Our Rabbi was worthy of having the Divine Presence rest upon him, but for the fact that he lived in the Babylonian Diaspora.”

Rav Nahman bar Hisda retorted:

“What about Ezekiel’s vision? `The word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel ben Buzi at the River Chebar, in the land of the Chaldeans?’” (Ezek. 1:3 — the Biblical prophetic reading for Shavuot). His father Hisda kicked him with his sandal and hissed, “Haven’t I told you not to stir up controversy?” (Babylonian Talmud Mo`ed Katan 25a)

This tale about a eulogy for a great Diaspora Jewish leader captures the essence of the relationship between the Land of Israel and powerful Diaspora Jewish communities. Does God’s Presence shine on Jews only in the Land of Israel, or is there also revelation and Jewish authenticity in the Diaspora?

Some in Israel today say that we in America are doomed to assimilate and die out, that we have no voice in Jewish affairs, as God’s Presence does not shine upon us. Like Rav Hisda, they want to metaphorically kick us under the table and demand our silence. They exhort us “not to stir up controversy.”

Yet there is no mistaking God’s presence in the Diaspora today, just as God was there in the time of Ezekiel in Babylonia. Like the American Jewish community, Babylonia was the great (perhaps the greatest) center of the Jewish Diaspora, and it did not hesitate to speak about the Land of Israel — and did so for millennia. We in America, like our Babylonian forbears, have spent decades supporting the Jews of the Land of Israel both spiritually and financially. There can be no mistaking that as Americans, we continue to have an obligation to speak up in order to advance shared US and Israeli interests as well as Jewish and democratic values, leading to a two-state solution.

We are counting the days to the holiday of Shavout — the festival when Jews all over the world celebrate receiving Torah. Torah, a revelation that was received by the Jewish people, was given at Mt. Sinai, in the wilderness of the Diaspora. Surely the Awesome Omnipresent is here!

As we approach Shavuot, we in the Diaspora ponder anew our connection to Israel. And we take our inspiration from Sinai and from Ezekiel and so many others who spoke and continue to speak God’s word to us, that the voice IN the Diaspora makes the voice OF the Diaspora one that all Jews must heed if we wish the Divine Presence to continue to shine, both al kol Yisrael (upon all Israel) v’al kol yoshvei tevel (and upon all who dwell on earth). Like our teacher Rav Nahman bar Hisda, we will continue to stir up controversy in the name of Heaven.

Chag Sameakh! (Happy Holiday!)