Standing at the Bottom of the Mountain

A kavvanah for the last day of the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship in Guatemala

Rabbi Penzner invites members and friends to come hear about her trip to Guatemala

with AJWS and learn how you can defend human rights on

Thursday evening, January 31 from 7:30 to 8:30.

Please contact the temple office if you plan to come.

If you miss this date, there will be another session on Sunday morning, March 3.

After a week in Guatemala with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Global Justice Fellows, our circle of rabbis and staff spent our final moments together reflecting on the many powerful experiences we had shared and discussed how to bring them home with us. All week, we had connected those stories to the stories of the Book of Exodus, as we encountered courageous midwives and celebrated inspiring leaders who were fighting for justice. As we entered into this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, I felt a magnetic connection between the image of standing at Sinai and our time in Guatemala. That image provided a context for carrying the experience back home that I shared with my colleagues.

It certainly helped that on the horizon from our balcony at a lovely coffee plantation, we had a clear view of an active volcano. Like our ancestors who stood at Sinai, we saw it smoke and it filled us with awe.

The Torah tells us that the Israelites stood b’tachtit hahar—usually translated “at the foot of the mountain.” However in the Talmud one rabbi interprets the phrase literally, “under the mountain.” He explains that the Holy One lifted up the mountain and flipped it over like a tub, holding it over the people, saying “If you accept Torah, good, and if not, this place will be your grave.” And they responded, Na’aseh v’nishma. We will do and we will obey.

I’ve never liked this threatening midrash. Fortunately, neither did other rabbis in the Talmud. A second rabbi argued that this version implies that the Israelites were coerced into accepting Torah, thereby making our commitment to accepting Torah involuntary, Finally, a third rabbi countered that eventually, the Jewish people accepted Torah of their own free will in the Book of Esther. I remained unconvinced.

The Hasidic commentary from Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, redeemed this midrash for me. The Maggid explained that the Israelites stood at Sinai in a state of expanded consciousness. They committed to Torah because, in that state, they were able to discern its deep meanings.

The problem is that the Israelites could not remain in that exalted state. (Mordecai Kaplan once said, “It is as possible to continuously believe in God as it is to stay continuously awake.”) After leaving Sinai, they were bound to fall to a lower rung of awareness. Thus the Holy One turned the mountain upside down and held it over them for a future time when they would need to be reminded of their commitment. With the mountain above them, they realized that when they are not at such an elevated state, they must recommit to Torah as if their lives depended on it.

The fifteen rabbis of the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship had a profound experience that enabled us to understand the deeper meanings of life in Guatemala. Looking beyond the obvious and simple explanations for historic injustices of poverty and violence, we absorbed the nuances and complexity of this land, its people, and its history.

As we return to our homes, when people need us and other pressing issues call to us, we must remember and recommit to sharing the stories and acting on behalf of the people of Guatemala, not because our lives depend on it, but because their lives do. 

We came to this country having prepared, as the Israelites did before receiving the Torah. We sprayed our clothes with insect repellent and took anti-malaria pills, we got our documents in order and read about Guatemala. We helped prepare those who stayed behind and who made our trip possible, by buying groceries and making lists, saying goodbye to children and partners and co-workers. We are grateful to them for continuing to do our work while we were away.

In Guatemala we witnessed the mountain smoking and heard the cries of the people, and were filled with awe and trembling. We also had intimate encounters with people, seeing their faces, entering their homes, and looking into their eyes. We have met them panim el panim, face to face as Moses spoke to God, and were filled with compassion.

We were not coerced to travel here. We came by choice. However, we met many people who have known coercion from their government and the military.

We left with deep gratitude to our leaders from AJWS, our Moses and Miriam and Aaron who guided and inspired us at every step.

We also expressed gratitude for the Torah we received from every person and organization whose heroic stories we heard in Guatemala. Their Torah is just as important as the Torah at Sinai. What is Torah, after all, if not the stories of people’s experiences passed down, not to think of them as ancient tales, but so that we can touch their experience? In the end, the values and teachings come from the same place.

And I am also grateful for the Torah of this remarkable group of rabbis. Rabbis who string words together like pearls. Rabbis who teach. Rabbis who tell stories. Rabbis who make us laugh. Rabbis who inspire. Rabbis who sing and rabbis who give us the gift of silence. And rabbis who pulled at our heartstrings and made us weep.

In a state of expanded consciousness in Guatemala, we came to discern the deeper meaning of human rights and of humanity. With that mountain above us, instead of na’aseh v’nishma, we committed to na’aseh venidaber: We will do and we will speak.

Posted on January 25, 2019 .