(L: Photo by Gili Getz)
A D’var Torah for Shavuot by Congressman Jerry Nadler
The current coronavirus pandemic presents an incredibly challenging time in our nation’s history. It has forced all of us to make significant changes to our lives as we adjust to social distancing and other preventative measures designed to curb the spread of the virus. Holiday celebrations have not been exempt; typically, right about now many of us would be preparing for a “Tikkun Leil Shavuot,” where our communities engage in a night full of learning, rigorous debate, and togetherness. We set aside this time because the holiday of Shavuot marks the culmination of the Children of Israel’s transformation, or evolution, from slaves in Egypt into a Jewish nation.
I want to suggest that the Jewish people’s evolution came about through understanding, a role model for our actions in these difficult times.
When the Jews assembled at the foot of Mt. Sinai to accept the Torah, God said to the people that if they preserved the covenant, “You will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). After hearing the laws of the Torah, the Jewish people exclaimed, “na’aseh v’nishma” (Exodus 24:7). Some commentators translate this phrase as “we will do and we will obey [the laws as they are written],” but I believe a more apt translation is “we will do and we will listen.” To listen is to hear — “Shma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad” — which requires understanding on multiple levels: who is speaking, what are they saying, whom are they speaking to, and what are the circumstances, needs, and capacity of the listeners. Pharaoh infamously refused to understand, even when the situation was painfully obvious, saying, “Who is Adonai, that I should listen [eshma] to [God’s] voice?” (Exodus 5:2) In stark contrast to his counter-example, the Children of Israel left Egypt as slaves, but through their journey to Sinai, their listening — their growing understanding of Adonai — transformed them into a Jewish nation.
This interpretation of “we will do and we will listen” is substantiated by the story of Zelophehad’s daughters that appears in the Book of Numbers. These five women came before Moses to challenge the law that only male heirs could inherit the land. Moses brings the case to God, who responds, “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just” (Number 27:7). God instructs Moses to change the inheritance laws accordingly — perhaps the first successful class action lawsuit ever. This vignette exemplifies that the Jewish people only became a nation when they accepted both the laws and the moral order of the Torah. They pledged to abide by its codified decrees as well as to wholly engage in the process of listening to appeals by marginalized people who advocate for changes in the law to make a more just society.
The covenant of our civil society in the United States, namely the Constitution, operates off an extrapolation of this principle — the statutes and legal doctrine generated from our Constitution must be upheld, but there is a process to amend that document when its laws conflict with our constantly evolving understanding human decency. Members of Congress have a duty to safeguard the norms and laws of this country as well as to further our march toward justice for all Americans. As its Chairman, I have led the House Judiciary Committee in fulfilling this obligation by conducting rigorous oversight regarding compliance with the rule of law and shepherding bills through Congress that seek to enshrine in our nation’s laws important protections for people’s civil rights and civil liberties, particularly for marginalized communities. In the time of this health and economic crisis, it is crucial that we hear those hurting across the country and use that understanding to inform our own actions, whether in legislation, or public advocacy, or communal support, in order to provide the resources and care that are desperately needed.
Although we may not be able to come together in person this Shavuot, we can collectively reaffirm our commitment to “na’aseh v’nishma,” both as members of the Jewish nation and an American public that strives to attain and protect the rights and liberties for all.
Congressman Jerry Nadler represents New York’s 10th Congressional District and has been a member of the House of Representatives since 1992. He currently serves as the Chair of the House Judiciary Committee.