- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

The following is a message given Saturday by Rabbi Sonya Starr at the Columbia Jewish Congregation in Columbia, Md.

Today we read from Exodus 19. This chapter prepares the Israelite people for the giving of the tablets in Chapter 20. God spends much of Chapter 19 preparing Moses and the Israelites for the choice they have to make: whether or not to enter the covenant with God.

Adonai begins by reminding the Israelites that they have already witnessed God’s wonder, God’s power in Egypt. This reminder is followed immediately by the promise that God will protect the Israelites from such destruction if they follow God’s laws.

The rabbis asked a very interesting question when confronted with this passage. They asked how much free will did the Israelites have. One midrash describes how God brought the Ten Commandments to different tribes and each said, “No, thank you,” based on their personality.

Some could not imagine a world without stealing, others murder, and still others lying. In this midrash, the Israelites were the only ones who recognized the value of all 10 Commandments and said yes.

Another midrash took a different stance. In this midrash, God took Mount Sinai and held it over the Israelite’s head, asking then if they would follow God’s laws. It is implied in this midrash that if they said no, the mountain would come crashing down on top of them. In this midrash, they did not have a real choice.

How much choice do we have in the contemporary world? Modern psychologists argue about the dominance of genetics over environment. Some state that our genes predetermine most of our personality before we are born. Others point to research that suggests the environment in which we grow up has more influence on whom we are.

On the third day, when God was to appear to the Israelites, Mount Sinai was covered with thunder, lightning, clouds, smoke, fire and piercing sulfur blasts. Then God spoke. Almost as if God wanted the message to be confused. How could anyone really concentrate on what God was saying, with so much distracting noise going on? It would be like going to a rock concert with blaring music, strobe lights, blasts of smoke, millions of people pushing and screaming and God speaking.

Either God made a big mistake or God wanted us to be distracted, overwhelmed and confused. The question becomes why? What would we gain by having a foundational text that makes it unclear whether or not we chose to follow God or were bullied? Ultimately, what we gain is our own free will. If our ancestors clearly decided for us, then we are merely following their lead without making a decision ourselves. If it is unclear whether or not our ancestors freely decided, then it is obligatory for us to decide.

Do we today want to follow God’s laws? Do we do so because we are afraid of lightning striking us down if we do not or because the laws are just and right? Do we know? Do we follow all the laws equally or are some more important than others? Are the decisions of our youth the same as those we make later? Will we ever know concretely whether or not faith is real?

Today’s biblical reading is a challenge to us. The goal is not to know all the answers; no one really can. Nevertheless, to enter the questions, think about how we would live differently based on what we believe.

For religious thought is not about decisions or conclusions. It is not about the end. It centers on the means, the way, the journey we are all on. Ultimately, most of us spend most of our life in the wilderness, looking for the clouds and fire that will lead us, praying for enough water and food that will feed us, hoping for safety and security to protect us, and occasionally catching glimpses of the truth, the sacred, the holy — of God. May we live our life so that when that glimpse comes, we are prepared to see, witness, enjoy, sanctify, and live it fully.

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