One of my favorite comedians growing up was Denis Leary. I was exposed to him at a young age, and my friends and I fell in love with his style before we ever actually understood many of his more adult jokes. In a late-90s comedy special, Leary makes a joke about new trends in health and fitness. He says he understands people that lift weights and subscribe to more traditional workout regimens. However, Leary does not understand why people would ever use the stairmaster. He mocks, “Have we turned into gerbils, ladies and gentlemen?!? People are paying money to go into a health club and walk up invisible steps over and over again for an hour and a half. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m goin’ up!’” I have to admit, I too have never quite understood this particular workout, but this week, I started to think about it more seriously.
This week, in Parshat Yitro, we recall the story of what happened at Mt. Sinai. As Moses our Teacher/משה רבינו tells the people of Israel that which God has commanded, “The people all answered as one: ‘Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do’/וַיַּעֲנוּ כָל-הָעָם יַחְדָּו וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה” (Ex. 19:8). And in next week’s Parsha, we are told, “Then he [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will listen’/וַיִּקַּח סֵפֶר הַבְּרִית וַיִּקְרָא בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ כֹּל אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר ה’ נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע.” (Ex. 24:7). This concept, “we will do, and [then] we will listen/na’aseh v’nishma/נעשה ונשמע, has become a banner for model behavior in our tradition, and it is a response that makes God very happy to be in a unique relationship with us as a people.
The Chernobyler Rebbe asks, how is it possible to do before you know what to do? And, why is God so pleased with our response? He explains that “we will do/na’aseh/נעשה” represents our ability to stay connected to God, even when we fall from the places we once were. This is difficult and it takes hard work, yet is an essential truth that we must try to carry with us at all times. Even when I am flat on the ground, troubled by my struggles, looking up at the place where I just was, I have to know that God is on the ground with me--there no is place that is empty, the whole world is filled with God’s glory/melo kol ha’aretz kvodo/מלא כל הארץ כבודו. It might feel lonely down on the ground, but if we can sense, even a little bit, that we are not alone, it can give us the push to get up, and start climbing back up again, step by step. The Chernobyler Rebbe says this is an essential Israelite behavior--the reason why God is so pleased is that we never separate, even when we fall. The wifi may be weaker on the bottom floor, but we need to remember that there is always a signal. As we climb higher and higher, we will come to clearly understand (listen/nishma/נשמע) that which we sensed below--that we were never alone at all.
As humans, we struggle daily with various challenges. It may feel that every morning we have fallen a bit from where we were the day before. This is a difficult reality to face. And, it can also be an exciting opportunity. Before we receive the Ten Commandments, we are told that “on this day they came to the wilderness of Sinai/בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה בָּאוּ מִדְבַּר סִינָי” (Ex. 19:1). “On this day”, according to the Rabbis (BT Brachot 63b) means this day, today! Our daily engagement with God and Torah, though a constant struggle, should also feel exciting. Living every day brings new experiences; new insights and understanding. Every day should feel like the day that we received Torah, filling us with joy and vitality. As I reach each new step, even if I have been there before, it feels like the first time that I was there. When we are at the bottom, the question before us is, “where are you going?” This week, lets us look to each other and remember that we are all in this together. Then we can smile and answer, “I’m goin’ up!”
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.