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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

May 29, 2020

There’s something about Jews and mountains.

Today, Shavuot, is our moment of standing on Mount Sinai, of having made that journey from slavery in Egypt to revelation, to receiving our sacred gift of story.

Our poetry, our psalms, and our songs are full of mountain imagery. In our history, and in the land of Israel, mountains are with us, too. Our ancient gathering place was the Temple Mount. Our collective memories are painted with the hills of Jerusalem. There’s just something about Jews and mountains. We know it here, in the Berkshires, and other mountain destinations of our people in the United States, particularly in the Northeast - the Catskills, the Poconos.

With all the challenges of our current reality, I have appreciated spending more time in nature lately. Standing at a clearing, on a mountaintop, at a summit - these moments have afforded me a sense of perspective, calm, and peace.

There are many mountaintop moments in our Torah. However, our text is not uniform in what mountains represent, in what they might mean for us. Three moments stand out to me as complicated, perhaps even contradictory ways we relate to mountains. In these contrasts, we can find deeper meaning.

Esa einai el he’harim, m’ayin yavo ezri

Ezri m’im Adonai, oseh shamayim va’aretz

l lift up my eyes unto the mountains

From whence, from whence will my help come?

My help will come from God

Maker of heaven and earth...

These words, fixed in our musical memories, from Psalm 121, offer the first way we can understand mountains. We look up - we look to God, to something higher than ourselves. Mountains are our help and our strength, a steady presence. A place to turn.

Our rabbis teach that there is no early and no late in the Torah. Even though Genesis, Bereshit, is the first book, we learn that today, on Shavuot, all of Torah - everything written down, everything that ever was said or would be said or interpreted or imagined or understood - all of Jewish wisdom - was revealed in one moment - right about now, actually. So time is relative, for us.

Still, we need the table of contents page to help us wind our way through our vast tradition. So, for lack of a better term, earlier in our Torah, we find another mountaintop moment. In Genesis 22, we read:

There came a time when God put Abraham to a test, saying to him,

“Abraham!”

And Abraham answered “Hineini. Here I am.”

God said, “Take your son, your only one, Isaac, and go forth to the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt-offering, on one of the mountains that I will show you.”

Many of us know this story well as the Akedah, the binding of Isaac, that we read on Rosh Hashanah. Abraham’s test is a test of faith - would he sacrifice his son to show his commitment to God, if asked. While this test presents theological challenges for our modern sentiments, the idea of a mountaintop test is still apt for us today.

Abraham arises early to do his task, to climb the mountain, and to face what awaited him at the peak. From Abraham, we learn that we may face challenges along the way, and at the summit, perhaps we face the greatest test of all - and feel the greatest sense of accomplishment. Still, his test on Mount Moriah is not the last challenge Abraham will face. It is one mountain to climb along his journey.

Finally, mountaintops are our place of covenant and connection, our place of revelation and responsibility. At Mount Sinai, God affirms the covenant with us, bestows us with our Torah. The day that we celebrate today - Shavuot - recreates that moment at Sinai. Shavuot, as one of the three festivals and a significant holiday for us, is one of our mountaintop moments in the cycle of our year.

But how did we get here? 50 days ago, the sea parted and we began counting and wandering in the desert. Life is not only found in the mountaintop moments. We spend far more time on the climb to the mountain peaks on the 49 days of the Omer, and all the other days we count and live through, than at the summit. On our journeys, we sometimes see glimpses of the peaks, the moments of help, the moments of revelation, along our trials and tests.

We cannot live on mountaintops. Well, in the Berkshires, perhaps some of us actually, physically do - but most of our towns and our communities are in the valleys. We live on earth, not in the sky. We live in the now, in the journey, in the desert, in the valleys, in the counting.

As a teenager, living in Israel, I completed a five day journey called sea to sea, yam l’yam, from the Kineret in the east to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. We walked straight across the land of Israel. On day 3, the landscape started to blur a bit, and the hills got a little harder to climb. Like a kid in the backseat of a car, I joked loudly to my friends: “Are we there yet?”

Our guide turned to me and simply said - Haderech lo hamatera - it’s the journey, not the destination.

So much of our lives are in the journey, not the destination, in climbing through valleys and slopes, small peaks, little victories, moments of calm and peace. And the climb continues. Today, we made it to Shavuot. Today, our services are still virtual. We are still staying at home. There will be more tests and struggles and challenges after this mountaintop.

At the end of his life and the end of our Torah, Moses ascends Mount Nebo, a mountain you can still visit in Jordan today, looking over the Rift Valley into the land of Israel. Moses reached the mountaintop, but he never arrives in the promised land.

Even after mountaintops, moments of meeting, tests, struggle, and looking for help, our journey continues. There’s always more work to do. Racism, poverty, hatred, environmental degradation - these challenges are with us, even as we find a moment of success at the mountaintop. We keep going.

We keep going and we are still counting. We are still climbing. And even though this struggle, this time period, this test, this trail feels more unscalable than most, we also know there will be other mountains after this one. And that’s not our curse. That’s our blessing. To look to God, to mountains, to each other, for our help. To pass through tests and challenges with grace and bravery. To draw strength from each step of the journey. And to always continue to climb.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Tue, July 14 2020 22 Tammuz 5780