How to Give Torah

There are some ideas so familiar to us that it’s easy to forget how radical they are. Every human being is created in God’s image. Every life is worth a world. The entire people received Torah at Mount Sinai.

For most people throughout history, including today, a spiritual quest or revelation has meant an individual encounter with the Divine — often on a mountaintop and in solitude. Definitely a personal, private relationship.

Shavuot commemorates the Jewish people’s grandest moment of revelation — on a mountain, but definitely not in solitude. Absolutely personal, but not in the least private. Zeman matan torateinu, the time of the giving of our Torah, had many of the (ecumenical) markers of great spiritual encounters: preparation and purification, fear and trembling, synesthesia and miracles, mission and covenant. But it had one rare and defining component: It was shared.

Biblical descriptions of giving the Torah vary in some details, but the message of inclusion is unmistakable. Exodus 20:15: “And all the people witnessed the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the shofar….” Deuteronomy 5:19: “Adonai spoke [the Ten Commandments] to all your assembly at the mountain … with a mighty voice that was not heard again.”

The most radical statement of inclusiveness appears toward the end of Deuteronomy (29:9-14), as Moses reviews the nature of the covenant: “You stand this day, all of you, before Adonai your God — the heads of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel; your children, your women and your stranger who is in your camp; from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water — to enter into covenant with Adonai…. Not with you alone do I make this covenant and this oath, but with the one who stands here with us this day before Adonai our God, and also with the who is not here with us this day.”

Ancestors and descendants, women and men, political leaders and manual workers, natives and strangers, those present and those not present — everyone is included. And we are all present together this day — this day of revelation at Sinai (Shavuot), this day that our ancestors listened to Moses on the plains of Moab, this day — any day — that we open up the Torah and read this message. Revelation occurs in the eternal present tense. That is why the blessing upon reading the Torah is phrased “noten hatorah” — Blessed are You, God, who gives [or constant Giver of] the Torah.

Ancient rabbinic commentaries highlighted the diversity of participants at Mount Sinai. Converts were said to be present. Pregnant women were present, too, although the voice they heard was softer, so as not to startle and induce miscarriage. When Exodus 19:2 describes the Israelites pitching camp before Sinai, the verb used (vayichan) is singular. One interpretation is that, even with the enormous numbers and diversity of the participants, the Israelites were absolutely One with God and one another at Sinai.

In the classic rabbinic analogy, the experience at Sinai is like a wedding. The Jewish people and God enter into holy and mutual covenant. A wedding is, from one point of view, a rather strange custom. In honor of a most sacred, intimate bond and of joining your life inextricably and permanently to another in every arena, you invite 200 or so of your closest friends to watch — and then munch on kosher pigs-in-blankets.

Why does the crowd gather? Curiosity? An overweening sense of ownership? Brides and grooms have leveled these accusations, but the truth is that the crowd is vital. It not only bears witness, it also informs and shapes the covenant. Sneaking off to elope in Vegas is not a standard (or even rebellious) Jewish practice, because Jews know — going all the way back to Sinai — that covenant is a communal event as well as a personal choice. Whether it’s a wedding between two Jews or the marriage of God and an entire people, our holiest moments are communal moments. Not a solitary person on a mountaintop or a lone couple in a desert chapel, but an entire people, the whole mishpocha, sharing a connection with a Divine and/or human beloved and with one another.

The world has become very splintered. We separate and segregate: red states vs. blue states, religious vs. secular, us vs. them. The situation is not appreciably better within the Jewish world. Among Klal Yisrael, there is, sadly, a great deal of divisiveness.

The holiday of Shavuot reminds us: Torah means inclusion. Covenant means community. Not just some folks, or the people I agree with, but everyone.

We first received the Torah on Shavuot. But it was not the kind of “receiving” that is passive or complete. It is an active receiving, which demands being available and aware, continually integrating what we receive, and ultimately transmitting it, as well.

God is not the exclusive Giver of Torah. Each of us is called upon to teach it to our children. Torah is our bequest, as well as our inheritance. We invite it to leave its mark on us, and we strive, with all due humility and awe at the task, to leave our mark on it.

How shall we give Torah? Ideally, as God did: inclusively, irrespective of age, position or gender; lovingly, in holy covenant; with unconditional, radical acceptance, in the melee of imperfect community; united, amid the noise and the crowd and all the differences that seem to separate us.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life” (Jewish Lights), is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at


Snow Job

Maybe I’m crazy, but each winter I plan a family vacation that is fraught with danger. To reach our destination, we must drive up a perilous mountain road studded with hairpin turns. Oddly, during our ascent, this NASCAR-approved artery is usually choked with fog or hail.

But this is only the hors d’oeuvre: The entrée is when everyone except for me straps themselves to bulky planks of wood before hurtling at 50 mph down icy slopes with names like “Surrender Isle.” I drop everyone off at the ski resort and then hightail it back to the cabin, where Ken waits for me, wagging his tail.

Like me, Ken is risk-averse and agrees that skiing is sheer madness and folly. We cuddle on the couch, I pop in a DVD and wrap my cold hands around a cup of hot cocoa.

This is not laziness. It is a necessary mental health exercise to banish images of my next of kin putting themselves in harm’s way on triple-black diamond slopes. Oh sure, I tried skiing — once. It was a disaster.

My husband had summoned every ounce of perseverance and patience in his DNA to try to teach me this skill, but we were not on speaking terms by the end of the lesson. Falling down repeatedly like a rag doll and getting tangled in skis is not my idea of fun, and I concluded that only fools or suicidal thrill seekers could embrace skiing as a sport.

By my reckoning, a Boggle tournament with serious players ought to be enough excitement for anyone. It is a tacit understanding between my husband and me that he is never to attempt to teach me any other athletic skill ever again.

Our mountain jaunts usually last for three days, but for the life of me, I can’t manage to prepare for them in under a week. I need at least a day to dig up mismatched gloves, hats and mufflers, which otherwise have no purpose in Southern California; two days to shop and cook; and at least three days to closely study the available accommodations advertised on the Internet.

Cabins in our price range are kindly referred to as “rustic.” Last year, we agreed that Casa de Pine Cone, equipped with a miniature pool table and dusty dining room lamp etched with the Budweiser logo, was a touch too rustic for our taste.

This year, I carefully avoided any cabin with the word “Kozy” in the name, because anyone who thinks it’s cute to further degrade our language won’t get a dime out of me. Besides, “cozy” (no matter how you spell it) is code for “so tiny even short people will have to bend over when taking a shower.” I also learned to be wary of cabins with French names, since a “chateau” where we once stayed should really have been called “La Hovel.”

But this year, I succumbed to temptation and booked Bear’s Détente, hoping that the kids might fight less around a dining table where the grizzlies and the black bears finally signed a truce. Bear’s Détente didn’t really do much to engender greater sibling love, but it was definitely a classier joint than Casa de Pine Cone. It had a thick stack of Family Circle magazines dating from 1999 and, in keeping with the European theme, a table lamp etched with the Heinekin logo.

Unfortunately, these trips are working vacations for me. As shlepper-in-chief, I am forced to tramp around in the snow half the day delivering snacks at 10:30 a.m., lunch at 1 p.m. and hand lotion and dry socks at 3 p.m.

For some reason, our designated meeting place is always on the top level of the slope’s multitiered eating areas. Believe me, trudging up all those stairs at an altitude of 6,500 feet should be more exercise than anyone seemingly on vacation should have to endure.

At the end of the day, I collect the entire freezing crew and shuttle them back to our cabin, while the kids clamor for dinner immediately. Despite the multiple snack deliveries, everyone is starving.

All this personal valet service I provide cuts pretty deeply into my DVD watching and hot chocolate sipping time, but I am the mother, and this is my job. In fact, my life on vacation is pretty much just like my life at home, only with pine trees.

One night by popular demand, my husband kindled a fire. This seemed like the perfect cozy finish to a tiring day.

“I’ll just make sure the flue is open,” he said, fiddling around in the fire pit.

“Why is it so smoky in here?” coughed one of the kids, as a haze quickly billowed through the room and the smoke detector beeped in alarm. They say where there’s smoke, there’s fire but not at Bear’s Détente.

By the time my husband found the flue opening, we had smoked out every last bear left in those mountains, while also failing to stoke any meaningful flames. On a happier note, I discovered that one can avoid deadly smoke inhalation by flinging open the front and back cabin doors and allowing the bracing, 20 degree air to clear the place out. I promise you that after an hour and a half, the smoke will be gone and so will the kids, who will be huddled in the car with the heater on.

Still, I consider the trip a success. Even though one son went missing one day, no one ended up in the resort’s mini-hospital, either from skiing accidents or too much family togetherness. Two trips to the local supermarket assured that we had enough to eat, the dog only got sick once and I finally got to finish my movie after only six sittings.

We left in the evening, and I drove us down that harrowing road, trying to think of safer destinations for next year. But I think I am too late. All the kids consider themselves ski bums. But with this designation, they can rent their own locker for snacks and dry socks during the day. There’s only so many times a woman can be asked to interrupt her movie marathon and hot chocolate sipping.

Isn’t that what vacations are all about?

Judy Gruen is the author of two award-winning humor books. Read more of her columns on


Spinning Wheels for a Good Cause


Some people kiss the soil of Israel when they come to the Holy Land. Last month, Audrey Adler didn’t so much kiss the dirt as inhale it.

Adler and a handful of other Angelenos participated in a charity bike ride for Alyn Children’s Hospital in Jerusalem through some of the toughest terrain Adler has ridden.

A mountain bike racer and triathelete who trains in the Santa Monica Mountains, Adler took the off-road leg of the bike ride from the Negev desert up to the Dead Sea and on to Jerusalem, where 250 yellow-clad riders from around the world swept into the parking lot of Alyn hospital on Oct. 28. This year’s ride raised nearly $1 million for the hospital, which has a new residential wing and rehab center for children with chronic respiratory disease. Christopher Reeve visited the hospital last year and was a supporter.

“When you see these kids you just say, ‘OK, I’ll do whatever you want,'” Adler said. “These are kids who were born with difficulties, kids who were victims of terrorist attacks, kids that just had fluke accidents.”

Adler, a self-described workout maniac who teaches spin classes for women at her home studio, and also leads classes at the Spectrum Club and Sports Club/LA, didn’t let a shattered wrist bone from a snowboarding accident last February stop her from training for the five-day, 240-mile ride (300 miles for the on-road riders). It started at the Ramon Crater in the Negev, traversing dusty desert mountains in 100-degree heat and stifling humidity.

Riders stayed overnight at kibbutz guest houses, and Adler was inspired by visions of men going to minyan at the crack of dawn with tallit and teffilin over their lycra shorts and yellow jerseys.

“It was like I died and went to heaven — that I could ride on a supportive ride that didn’t ride on Shabbos, that catered to my every need with three kosher meals a day, and I was out there with other maniacs like me that were Jewish and Israeli, but total fiends like myself,” Adler said.

This is Adler’s second year riding in the 5-year-old event, and this year she got corporate sponsorship from Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, whose Californian and Israeli divisions kicked in $5,000 for her ride. In addition, Coffee Bean donated a 200-gram souvenir canister of coffee to every rider.

Adler also got $5,000 sponsorship from one of her training clients, Richard Crane, a 61-year-old Jewish man who didn’t have much to do with Judaism or Israel until he met Adler.

“I go out with him on weekends on very long bike rides, and I talk to him about Judaism and I explain things,” she said.

Many of her students are shocked when they find out that Adler, a vivacious talker who doesn’t have an ounce of fat on her and has a fashion sense worthy of her other identity as an interior designer, is in fact a 45-year-old Orthodox mother-in-law.

Adler’s husband, Benny (the eponymous Benny of the minyan at Beth Jacob), secretly trained and surprised her by participating in the on-road bike ride for Alyn, in honor of their 25th wedding anniversary.

“A ride like this gives athletics a deeper meaning. It took everything I’ve worked on for years as an athlete and implanted into it a soul and made it whole,” she said. “This took it to a whole other level and I want to focus on turning other people on to it.”

For more information, visit, or contact Audrey Adler at or


Jerusalem: The center city

In 1967, after the Six-Day War, Jerusalem was reunified. This means that until that day in June, half of Jerusalem had been in Jordan, the country next to Israel. So, for 36 years, Jerusalem has been united within the borders of Israel. It is Israel’s capital city. But Jerusalem is much older than that. It is more than 3,000 years old.

It has been considered the center of the earth for thousands of years. Many people, including Christians, have fought over it, and it is still being fought over by Jews and Muslims. But there have been times when all people lived together in peace in Jerusalem. And that is our prayer — that soon, people will live in peace in the city that has the word "shalom" in its name.

Up The Mountain

In the center of Jerusalem is a mountain called Mount Moriah. Many biblical figures are associated with this mountain.

Poetry Place

This poem by Gabe Suchov, 13, of Encino, expresses how we all feel about wanting peace. It is a good poem to read on Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) on May 30 and on Memorial Day on May 26.

Who are we, to say what is good or bad,
happy or sad?
Who are we, to conquer and kill,
to take what isn’t ours, to empty and to fill?
I am me, nothing more, nothing less,
and if we conform, we will not progress.
I want a future, I have a past,
I want to live life and make it last.
We are all different, none the same.
We all have ideas, we all have a name.
Social classes? No such thing!
Although we are different,
we are all human beings.
We all have a voice, with something to share,
With morals and lessons for us to ensnare.
We can learn from other’s mistakes v
and the wrong ways they go,
But the greatest lessons to learn
are the ones we already know.
I leave you with that, so you can explore,
The soul of the human, for it is the core.