By Rabbi Yehiel Poupko
Today, we, the Jewish People, have finished counting and fulfilling seven weeks of seven days, forty-nine days since Pesakh and the liberation from slavery in Egypt-Mitzrayim. As the Torah records, we were freed from slavery in the sight of all the world.
In Your love You lead the people You redeemed; In Your strength You guide them to Your holy abode. The peoples hear, they tremble; Agony grips the dwellers in Philistia. Now are the clans of Edom dismayed; The tribes of Moab — trembling grips them; All the dwellers in Canaan are aghast. Terror and dread descend upon them; Through the might of Your arm they are still as stone — Till Your people cross over, O LORD, Till Your people cross whom You have ransomed. (Shemot-Ex. 15:13-16)
This evening we celebrate Shavuot-Pentecost. We will arrive at Mt. Sinai, where we will be given the Torah, where we will receive the Torah, and where God will reveal God’s self to us, as recorded in Exodus-Shemot 19 and 20. No one else was present at this revelation and at the giving of the Torah. The liberation from slavery is a universal experience witnessed by all the world. The giving of the Torah at Sinai is absolutely particular and parochial. Only the Jewish People were given the Torah. God and Israel were alone at Sinai, the Rabbis teach, like a bride and groom at their wedding. In order to achieve this absolutely particular, parochial, and private experience God gave the Torah to us in the desert. We were all alone with God. No one was there. No one else was given the Torah.
And then imagine the shock. No sooner than we at Sinai are all alone with the One God, in order to give the Torah to Israel, God begins to read the Torah out loud in the hearing of all Israel so that Moses-Moshe can write it down. What are amongst the very first words that Israel, in absolute intimacy with the One God hears read?
When in the beginning of the creation of heaven and earth…and God said, “Let us make the Adam (the human) in our image, after our likeness…” And God created the Adam in God’s image. In the image of God did God create the Adam. Male and female God created them.”
In a moment of absolute parochialism, an experience shared with no one, God declared to Israel, every person is created in the image of the One God. In this pristine moment of intimacy God declares the absolute universal principle. Every human is created in the Image.
We have a custom, a tradition, to stay up all night tonight, Shavuot, and to read, study, and learn the whole Torah from the beginning of Genesis-Bereshit to the end of Deuteronomy-Devarim. Like all Israel standing at Sinai, what will we experience? So, tonight in our moment of absolute privacy with the One God we will note, on this anniversary of our honeymoon with God at Mt. Sinai as we begin to read the whole Torah from the beginning of Genesis-Bereshit, that just two or three days ago one person created in the image of the One God, an African American, an American citizen, a resident of Minnesota, George Floyd, cried out, “Please, I can’t breathe!” At the same time, another person created in the image of God, for approximately ten minutes with his knee on George Floyd’s neck did not hear him speak these four words, “Please, I can’t breathe.” And tonight, we will also come to that verse in the Torah, and God artistically fashioned the human, dust from the earth, and breathed into the human’s nostrils the breath of life, and the human being became a breathing articulate being. So, tonight on Shavuot, in commemoration of our most particular of experiences, we will, like our parents long ago at Sinai, listen to the words of the Torah declare the most absolute universal of all realities. Every human being is created in the Tselem Elokhim, the Image of God. And into every human being has God breathed the breath of life. As we remember the last words of George Floyd, “Please, I can’t breathe!”
All good to each and every one of you,
Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is Rabbinic Scholar at the Jewish United Fund/ Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.