, , , , , ,

Today is Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, so called because it is exactly seven weeks after Passover. But more importantly, it is the length of time it took the Children of Israel to reach Mount Sinai after being freed from Egypt. At Sinai, God gave Moses and the people the Ten Commandments and the Torah.

Which is why I was amused yesterday to see a church’s sign that read, “What is God’s Law? Sunday at 10am.”

A Jew would be hard-pressed to try to answer the question “what is God’s law” in a single morning’s service. For us, the answer is too long and complex. According to Judaism, God’s law is not singular. The Torah, the Jewish Bible, lists 613 laws. Judaism is a religion of law and daily practice of those laws.

But as I drove and pondered the sign, I found myself wondering how it might be possible for a Jew to sum up God’s law. Is it, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you?” Is that expansive enough to guide a person through the days, months, and decades of a life?

My answer for myself is that it is insufficient. There is so much more to my life than my kindness, concern, and thoughtfulness of others. I believe there are other moral imperatives that must guide our days.

I’m going to propose something that is perhaps surprising, which is to take the fourth of the ten commandments as our guide. I believe it could be the most all-encompassing of the many commandments in the Torah. Although we think of it merely as “remember the sabbath day,” here is the entire commandment from the Bible:

 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any manner of work — you, your son, your daughter, your man-servant, your maid-servant, your cattle, and your stranger that is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath Day, and hallowed it.” Exodus 20:8-11

Encapsulated in these few verses is first to recognize that time is holy. Shabbat is the most holy, but on the other days we must do all of our work, expend all of our efforts, making every day, every moment, holy. And we are told to use our time to imitate God, to include everyone in our sphere of influence in this imitation. We are told to acknowledge that God’s realm is greater than any one day or behavior, but is indeed the entire universe.

This means that on six days of the week we are to be as god to our world – to care for it and those around us, to do everything in our power to behave as God would behave – and on the seventh day to rest, refresh, and renew ourselves in order to begin again in the new week.

It is an enormous task. No wonder the Torah and Talmud take great pains to expand upon it and teach us the proper ways in which to lead our lives so that we can strive to achieve God’s goal for us.

And it is an impossible task. This is why our children are included in the commandment, ensuring that we teach them God’s laws on how to live their lives, so they will continue the work after we are gone.

There are many midrashim, stories that have sprung up over the ages about the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. One is that God lifted up the mountain and held it over the people, threatening to drop it on them if they did not agree to receive the Torah. It speaks to the reluctance of humans to take on the superhuman task of trying to be like God, and trying to live as God requires.

It’s not easy. But according to the midrash, the Children of Israel agreed. Now, it is our task to continue their work in making the world a better place for ourselves, our children, our fellow humans, the other creatures and growing things on earth, and the planet itself.