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Sinai Indaba (Edited Transcript)

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Sinai Indaba is a very exciting convention, a gathering of top international speakers from all parts of the Jewish world coming together to debate and to discuss the issues which we face on a daily basis, as human beings and as Jews.  The first leg of the Sinai Indaba conference took place yesterday in Durban and it continues please G-d Saturday night in Johannesburg and Cape Town and on through Sunday and Monday in Johannesburg and Cape Town, respectively.  Full details can be found on the Sinai Indaba website, www.sinai-indaba.co.za.  

The tagline of the Sinai Indaba conference is “Torah Talking to a Modern World,” emphasising that Torah concepts apply to real life.  If you have a look at the programme you will find an array of fascinating topics and issues, including philosophy, medicine, business, marriage, relationships, parenting, Jewish identity, global politics, Israel, emotional wellbeing and spiritual development.  As our Sages say in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, Hafoch ba vehafoch ba, dechula ba “turn it [the Torah] over and over, for everything is in it.”  In fact, the Midrash says that G-d looked into the Torah and created the world.  The Torah is the blueprint for the world; it relates to everything and everyone and explains how best to approach everything we experience.

Unity at Sinai

We have just celebrated the festival of Shavuot, commemorating the anniversary of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai 3323 years ago.  The experience at Mount Sinai is the foundation of who we are and what our world philosophy should be.  There are two major values in the Sinai experience, which are encapsulated in the Sinai Indaba conference.  The one is unity; our Sages describe the Jewish People’s encampment at the foot of the mountain as Ke’ish echad b’lev echad “like one person with one heart.”  The Sinai Indaba conference taking place in different communities across South Africa reflects this unity.  It is about coming together as a community, and hence the name Sinai was chosen – similar to the Generation Sinai project we had two weeks ago, where parents and children learned together. 

The other value experienced at Mount Sinai is the revelation of G-d’s wisdom.  We all heard Anochi Hashem Elokecha, “I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of the land of Egypt” and the Ten Commandments which began the process of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish People.  We celebrate the fact that G-d revealed His wisdom – His plan for us as to how to live our lives.  

Torah wisdom is like no other because it is G-d’s wisdom

We live in a world where there are so many sources of information and insight.  It has become much cheaper to publish books; the internet has brought about a constant deluge of articles, opinions and speeches; information proliferates.  When we learn Torah, is it just another type of wisdom?  What makes Torah different from other worldly knowledge?  

Worldly knowledge is very powerful.  In fact, the Midrash says that if someone tells you there is wisdom amongst the nations of the world, you must believe them; G-d endowed every human being with the capacity for wisdom and insight.  We are all created b’tzelem Elokim “in His image,” with a soul and a mind, creativity and spirit.  G-d has given every human being insight and capability which enable incredible progress and achievement in the fields of engineering, medicine, literature, technology and every human endeavour.  But our Sages explain that Torah wisdom cannot be found anywhere else.  There is something unique about the wisdom of the Torah, which differentiates it from the wisdom of the world and that is the fact that it was given by G-d, revealed to us at Mount Sinai 3323 years ago.  Although this seems like a very long time ago, it is actually only 130 generations back if we calculate four generations per hundred years, or just 65 grandfathers and grandmothers ago.  Our link to Sinai is not that far removed.  G-d revealed His wisdom to us in the written Torah and the Oral Law, both of which were passed down from generation to generation.  The fact that the Torah comes from Hashem and is His revealed wisdom in the world is the distinguishing feature of Torah.  

There is an interesting halacha brought in the Gemara which the Rambam brings it as well, and that although, as we know, a Torah scroll has to be treated with respect and  dignity, if the Torah Scroll was written by somebody who does not believe in Hashem or does not believe that He gave the Torah, then that Torah scroll has no holiness and, in fact, is burned even though it is a seemingly holy document with G-d’s Names in it.  Rav Moshe Feinstein explains this Rambam as follows: if the person who is writing the Torah does not believe that this is the word of G-d then it has no meaning or sanctity.  He is just writing empty letters; the meaning is invested in the letters of what the person believes.  

This goes to the heart and soul of what Torah is: belief that Torah is divine, that it is G-d’s wisdom, and hence Sinai is such a crucial part of who we are.  This is what the Sinai Indaba conference is all about – gleaning G-d’s wisdom as revealed in His Torah on how to approach all facets of life.  It is about Torah talking to the modern world, about examining everything that we experience as human by looking at it through Hashem’s eyes.  

Torah enables us to connect with G-d

Rav Yerucham Levovitz, one of the great educators in the Mir Yeshiva before the Second World War, explains the difference between Torah wisdom and general wisdom as follows: general wisdom in the world and the intellectual study of things is certainly very powerful, but, says Rav Yerucham, there is a qualitative difference between the concept of chochmah, wisdom, of the Torah and the chochmah of the world.  Our Sages define four levels of existence in the world: inanimate objects, what we call domem; the plant kingdom, tzomeach; the animal kingdom, chai; and medaber, literally “speaker,” referring to the level of human beings.  Rev Yerucham says the difference between Torah wisdom and general wisdom is like the difference between an inanimate object and a plant, between a plant and an animal, or between an animal and a human being which is a different kind of existence altogether.

Torah is not just wisdom like any other.  It operates in a completely different way.  It is certainly very intellectual and there is a lot of depth and sophistication to it.; learning Gemara or Chumash with the commentaries require a lot of mental application.  But it is more than that.

If you have a look in the Chumash you will see that the experience of Mount Sinai was not just the handing over of information.  There was thunder and lightning and all kinds of effects; the mountain shook, the people shook, and according to one Talmudic tradition the peoples’ souls actually left their bodies because they were so awestruck by the experience.  In another passage in the Talmud which Rashi quotes, it says that G-d opened up the heavens and showed them the seven firmaments all the way into the heart of the heavens, so they were able to see Hashem Himself.  Conventional wisdom says that all of those special effects that Hashem added to the giving of the Torah were actually a side show.  To give a crude example, it is like a book launch.  You don’t just launch the book quietly; you make a party of it.  We would think the thunder, lightning and all the sound effects were there to create a show, to announce this is an important document.  Reb Yerucham says it was not just about creating a show but was actually part of the experience because in receiving the Torah we gained access to Hashem Himself.  The Torah is His writing, His way of thinking, and through it we connect to Him.  Everything opened up and this is why it was such an awesome experience.  The whole world shook when the Torah was given because it gave human beings direct access to Hashem in a way that nothing else can.  The special effects were the logical consequence of the experience of receiving the Torah.  

Torah is an emotional and spiritual experience, not just intellectual

Reb Yerucham explains this on a practical level as well.  We can experience information in two ways, personally and from a distance. For example, when we hear about somebody who got married or who had a baby, if we don’t know the people personally, then it is just a piece of information.  If we know and are close to the couple or the parents of the new baby then hearing the information has an emotional effect on us.  Similarly with bad news; when we hear about someone who is suffering illness or death or a tragedy in some far-flung part of the world, we know it is happening and can process it intellectually, but not personally.  Obviously we try to empathise with every human being, but the information does not have that same emotional impact as if we know the people affected.  If G-d forbid somebody we know is terribly ill or has passed away, it shakes us to the core; it is not just a piece of information.

Reb Yerucham says that when we learn Torah we are not just learning intellectual concepts in a cold, distant fashion, processing the piece of information like a faraway stranger who does not relate to it personally.  He says every word of Torah that we learn should have an enormous emotional and spiritual impact that goes to the core of our being.  Torah is so intellectually powerful but the process of learning Torah cannot just be a distant, cold intellectualism.  It needs to touch our heart and soul and permeate every aspect of our lives.  When we learn, we get direct access to Hashem.  Every time we sit down to learn, we have the opportunity to experience a direct connecting with Hashem.  We need to feel that connection and bring the feeling and emotion to it so that it’s not just something distant and removed from us.

This is what the Sinai Indaba conference is about: re-experiencing Mount Sinai, emotionally and spiritually, having a sense that we are actually at the foot of the mountain.  The lectures and the debates that will take place over the course of the conference, please G-d, are going to be of the highest intellectual and academic level but they are not merely an exercise in dry intellectualism; everything will be discussed not from a distance but through engaging with the issues, with an emotional and spiritual connection and inspiration like the original Mount Sinai experience. 

Those of you in Durban have already benefited from Sinai Indaba, but for those of you in Johannesburg and Cape Town who have not yet booked, now is the time to do so.  For more information visit the website, www.sinai-indaba.co.za.  I look forward to seeing you there.