Sinai, Tanakh, and the Teaching of Humility

It was our last service before Shavuot. We spoke about Sinai moments. Then I asked my husband, Ralf, to pick up one end of the tallit; I took the other.

We raised the tallit above our heads. Outstretched above us was a soft silk sky of teal blue shot through with lines of sapphire. A gold border shimmered on each side. The colors of sunset and morning sky and the dark of night rippled overhead.

Folks gathered beneath our chuppah. It was very quiet. Each person was praying.

Thus, each soul was singing.

Later, a congregant wrote to me: “I couldn’t help but bring to mind our Sinai moment underneath the beautiful tallit… I will carry that memory with me for the rest of the year, and beyond!”

There is nothing so real as the certainty of spiritual wholeness. It is a thing that cannot be described without tripping over the inadequacy of words.

I live for these moments however impossible it is to describe them. Time does not seem to pass; I am inhabiting a space that is singular. It will never come in that form again.

That was Friday night.

On Sunday morning, I sat at my desk and wrote about Hannah.

Rabbis, ministers, and scholars praise Hannah for her faithful prayers. They laud YHVH for granting her a miracle in the form of her son Samuel.

But those accolades are misplaced. It is YHVH who inflicts barrenness on Hannah, and for no reason. She has done nothing wrong; there is no punishment befitting some imagined failing. How many readers notice how long Hannah endures divinely induced infertility? Hannah must endure the taunts of Elkanah’s other wife, Penina, who reminds Hannah that YHVH has closed her womb. Year after dreadful year (1 Samuel 1:6-7).

YHVH does nothing. There is no communication. There is no explanation. Each year, Hannah weeps. Each year she fasts. There is no answer, no divine response. YHVH reacts only when she vows that if she is given a (male) child, she will return him to serve YHVH.

Perhaps this was YHVH’s plan all along? Perhaps this was a way to find a surrogate mother for a child YYHVH could take for his own, train for his own, and control on his own. For that is what happens to Samuel, who is forced to leave his family as a child. The repeated use of hiphil forms make clear that Hannah “causes” the child to be brought to Shiloh (1 Samuel 1:24).

To erase difficult texts only inflicts a second erasure. I can’t do it. Those readers who know what it is to be taunted and tormented, abused in body and soul — those readers would know me for a fraud.

There is no way to contend with the cruelty and violence of our own time with honesty and clarity while simultaneously privileging sacred texts and shielding them from accountability. The ethics we claim we bring to the present cannot be discarded when we address the past.

Sometimes, I inhabit that silence within which I sing. I know that space is inspired by Jewish practice, by Jewish experience, and by Jewish inheritance. Sometimes, I live inside the texts – biblical or rabbinic. They demand that I am honest and true – even to what is painful therein.

Both locations teach humility because neither space can be ignored.

I cannot pretend that all is well because I know it can’t be. That is arrogance, an arrogance that harms those who suffer. Nor can I authorize an uncritical belief in the sanctity of texts that valorize cruelty, or rewrite them to erase what hurts. That, too, would be arrogant; that, too, only harms.

I stand below the sky, which is the greatest chuppah. It makes us all small things, but, I hope, honest ones.

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