In a world that bombards us with information from every side, it can be surprisingly difficult to find truth. This past weekend many Jews celebrated Shavuot, the holiday commemorating God giving the Israelites the Torah at Mt. Sinai. While I don’t believe this happened in the way it’s vividly described in chapters 19 and 20 of the book of Exodus, I do believe the story contains deep wisdom. So what does the revelation at Sinai teach us about finding truth today?
These conditions for finding truth rule require us to look beyond NPR and Wikipedia and most of where we get our information. I think the Passover seder attempts to prepare us for revelation when it instructs us to proclaim, “Let all who are hungry to come and eat,” and later when we open the door to let in the Prophet Elijah, who according to tradition often wears the disguise of a destitute person. If I really made sure that I shared the seder with a person who does not usually have enough to eat I would almost certainly be forced to begin to see the world through different eyes and disturbing truths would undoubtedly emerge.
My most recent revelatory experience came under circumstances like the revelation at Sinai. The synagogue where my family belongs, Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, PA, belongs to the New Sanctuary Movement and we’re accompanying an immigrant family facing deportation. When Pedro, the father of the family, has a hearing in immigration court, a group of synagogue members shows up to demonstrate our support and hold the court accountable. No less important, we also welcome Pedro's family into our community, which serves to relieve at least somewhat the profound sense of isolation and vulnerability they feel.
On a Sunday morning in March, Pedro and his family visited our congregation for the first time. They spent part of their visit participating in a religious school assembly, which mostly consisted of Pedro sitting in the middle of the room, bravely struggling to explain his legal situation to the members of our community, who like most Americans, myself included, are barely aware of the details of our broken immigration system.
Then Lety, Pedro’s sister, asked to speak. Speaking in Spanish from the edge of the room, her back literally against the wall, perfectly fit her marginal position in American society as an undocumented female immigrant. In a soft, shaking voice, she explained the terrible situation of being in a place where you don’t want to be and where others don’t want you and yet not being able to leave. “You come to the US thinking you’ll just be here for a short time. But you wind up staying longer and longer because the success you’d been led to expect doesn’t materialize. And then you have to explain to your children why you’re here when people are so cruel to you.”
It takes great courage just for Lety, Pedro and others to admit being undocumented in our country today, with the number of deportations steadily escalating. (Surprisingly, President Obama has deported more people than his predecessor.) Lety demonstrated even more courage by revealing a profoundly painful experience to strangers who belong to a society that tends to blame immigrants for their own suffering (and almost everything else). But the humility Lety demonstrated in admitting the pain her choice to come here causes her children, thus exposing herself to criticism as a negligent parent on top of being an “illegal immigrant,” is what really left me in awe and made me realize I’d been standing at Sinai.
While the truth we learn from NPR or Wikipedia is often fascinating, it comes with no strings attached. The truths we learn at Sinai, on the other hand, require us to take action. So may we all venture beyond our comfort zones and hear the truths constantly being spoken there and take the action these truths demands.
(Source of image unknown. Attribution via Wikimedia Commons)
Rabbi Michael Ramberg graduated from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College this June. Much to his surprise, as the son of intermarried (but mainly secular) parents active in the Civil Rights movement, Michael has found in the rabbinate his own way to carry on his parents’ important legacy. For him the most compelling venue in which to pursue this work of repairing the world is through interfaith coalitions, not only because Jews need partners in order to bring about real changes, but also because interfaith relationships are so nourishing for him. Michael’s focus is standing up for the rights of immigrants, which he does primarily as a volunteer with the New Sanctuary Movement and with his synagogue, Mishkan Shalom, in Philadelphia, PA. In addition to his rabbinic role as community organizer and activist, Michael relishes his responsibilities working with people to sanctify life transitions. In his Jewish practice Michael is invigorated both by reconstructing the Jewish tradition to fit the evolving needs of people today and by immersing himself in prayer and the study of sacred texts. Michael’s partner just completed her PhD in Education and they have committed to equally sharing the care of their two year old daughter. Michael sometimes thinks that the profound love his daughter has inspired in him gives him at least a glimmer of understanding of the love the divine has for humanity.