August 7, 2018

Standing and learning together (Shavuot)

Today we celebrate Shavuot and commemorate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. This was and remains a momentous event in our history and in the history of the civilized world, and it is referred to by our Rabbis as מעמד הר סיני.

But, if we take a moment, we will come to realise that this is, in fact, a very strange term, because מעמד הר סיני literally means ‘the standing at Mount Sinai’, and though it may be an interesting historical fact to think about how the entire Jewish people stood while hearing the 10 commandments, it is not entirely clear what timeless message we are meant to learn from the mere posture of the Jewish people as God communicated with them.

To confuse matters further, and as pointed out by Rav Shimon Schwab (Ma’ayan Beit HaShoevah on Devarim 4:10), we find that on ever other occasion in Tanach – in the Bible – when God revealed Himself to a prophet, the prophet did not – in fact – remain standing. Instead, he or she prostrated themselves.

What this means is that while the revelation at Mount Sinai was a unique event for the Jewish people and the world at large, the reaction by the Jewish people to the divine revelation at Mount Sinai – that is, their standing rather than their prostrating – was also unique. The question I would like to consider is what are we meant to learn from this?

Well, Rav Schwab offers a fascinating answer to this question by explaining how Matan Torah was not just a divine revelation where God spoke to the Jewish people. Instead, it was a unique learning experience between God and the Jewish people, where: פָּנִים בְּפָנִים דִּבֶּר ה’ עִמָּכֶם בָּהָר מִתּוֹךְ הָאֵשׁ – where ‘God spoke to you face to face out from of the fire’ (Devarim 5:4(.

What this means is that unlike a prophecy where a prophet bowed down when hearing God’s message, מעמד הר סיני and the giving of the Torah was an experience when the Jewish people remained standing as they actively listened and actively learnt from God. Ultimately, we weren’t just passive observers at Mount Sinai. Instead, we were active learners.

In fact, our Rabbis in the Gemara Megillah (21a) go even further, and based on a verse (Devarim 5:28) which states how God told Moshe:  – וְאַתָּה פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי‘And you, stand here with Me’, they explain that כביכול אף הקב”ה בעמידה – ‘as it were, even God stood when giving us the Torah’.

This is fascinating, and what it means is that our Rabbis want us to imagine that when the Torah was given, both God, Moshe and all the Jewish people were standing together.

Now clearly this is a difficult concept to grasp, especially given our absolute belief that God does not have a physical body. Still, it is clear that our Rabbis are trying to teach us a deep lesson through this imagery which is why the Gemara then goes on to explain:

א”ר אבהו מנין לרב שלא ישב על גבי מטה וישנה לתלמידו על גבי קרקע שנאמר ”וְאַתָּה פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי”

Says Rabbi Abahu: How do we know that a teacher should not sit on a couch and teach his student who is sitting on the ground? From the verse ‘And you, stand here with Me’

Meaning, what we learn from here is that the imagery of what occurred at Mount Sinai is meant to teach us a principle that whenever Torah is taught, both the student and teacher should be on an equivalent level and maintain the same posture – either both sitting, or both standing.

In fact, this is not just a quaint Jewish idea, but rather, a halacha as codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 246:9) – the code of Jewish law.

But why is this important? What is the inherent lesson in the fact that a teacher and student should maintain the same posture when learning Torah?

I believe we are meant to learn from here that though it is often thought that Torah learning is all about hierarchy and the intellectual divide between the knowledgeable and the less knowledgeable, any Jewish learning moment that is not empowering to the learner and that does not engender a sense of equivalence of purpose between both the learner and teacher is not an authentic expression of how Torah should be taught or learnt. In fact, I believe this is why the greatest accolade we afford to a Torah scholar is that they are a Talmid Chacham or a Talmida Chachama – literally, ‘a wise student’ – because even the greatest Torah scholar is still a student.

The problem is that this isn’t always how it feels. Jewish texts can be hard to understand, and for those who do not have a strong Jewish learning background the act of Torah study can be challenging. And though some Torah teachers are brilliantly capable at creating that sense of equivalence, others prefer to maintain a sense of intellectual hierarchy and talk down to their students and even, at times, their community.

Yet when we go back in time, it is noteworthy that it was those Torah teachers who, to quote Heschel, brought ‘intellectual emancipation to the people’ (The Earth is the Lords p. 40), who achieved the greatest influence of whom the greatest were Rashi and Rambam who, in their own way, democratized Jewish education and made Jewish texts and Jewish teachings more accessible and more understandable.

What these great teachers did was enable learners to feel part of the Torah conversation and to contribute to Torah conversations. Simply put, they rebalanced the power between teacher and learner, and helped ensure that future Torah learning moments captured the spirit of the revelation at Mount Sinai.

So as we celebrate Shavuot, let us think about how we can enable and empower others in their pursuit towards Torah study, and realise that if Hashem was prepared to be, כביכול, on the same level as Moshe Rabbeinu, our job is to ensure that Torah is accessible to all.


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