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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Encountering God at Sinai and Today (a commentary on the festival of Shavuot)

In the Jewish calendar we begin counting 7 weeks from the second day of Passover. After the 7 weeks have ended, on the 50th day, we celebrate the festival of Shavuot (weeks). In the Torah this festival is simply considered one of the three Pilgrimage Festivals, along with Pesakh/Passover and Sukkot. However, in later Rabbinic times, it became associated with the giving of the Ten Commandments, as this seminal mythic event had no festival of its own. However, it was not just the giving of the Ten Commandments that occurred at Sinai. For according to the rabbis of old, the entire Torah and all of its subsequent interpretations (referred to as the “oral Torah”) were also given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. In other words, all that ever was and ever will be said was given by God at that auspicious moment at Sinai.This year, the festival of Shavuot began at sundown on Saturday and either ended tonight at sundown or will continue through tomorrow at sundown, depending on one's custom.

But what does this mean? And what did happen at Sinai? I am not discussing the historical veracity of the Biblical account, but rather, the deeper meaning, or the Truth, behind the narrative. Last night I heard two fascinating teachings on Exodus/Shemot Chapter 19, which is the preparation for the revelation at Sinai. I am going to attempt to distill some of the teachings that I heard (it was late at night, so I wasn't as awake as I'd like to be) and provide my own interpretation of how these can apply to our lives today from a mindful perspective.

In the Exodus narrative, Moses tells the people that on the third day God is to come down on Mount Sinai and appear to them. When God does appear, it is amidst thunder and lightning, smoke and fire, blasts of the shofar/ram's horn. And God appears in a thick, dark cloud from which God speaks.

Using the rabbinic technique of midrash, whereby the rabbis would provide their reading of the text while answering questions, explaining apparent contradictions or filling in gaps, a conversation is created between God and Moses as well as God and the people. In short, the people are made aware that God is going to speak to Moses from the cloud and that Moses will relay the message from God. The people complain that they desire to hear the words directly from God AND that they want to see, and not only hear God! Such audacity! But, in this midrashic conversation, God ultimately tells Moses that God will indeed “come down in the sight of all the people on Mount Sinai.” The people will get their way!

However, in Exodus Chapter 21, vs. 19, after all 10 Commandments are uttered, we read that after the people heard and saw the thunder, lightening, smoke and flame, they proclaimed "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die." And so the question remains, what did the people hear and what did they see? After all of their bargaining (as portrayed in the midrash) did they ever actually hear God's voice?

However, there is another account of the giving of the Ten Commdments at Sinai. In the book of Deuteronomy/Devarim (Chapter 4:10-14) Moses recounts these events during his final orations to the people prior to his death he tells a very different story:
“The day when you stood before YHWH, your God in Horeb (synonymous with Sinai), when the Lord said to me, Gather the people together and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children. And you came near and stood under the mountain; and the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, with darkness, clouds and thick darkness. And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words, but saw no form; you only heard a voice. And God declared to you God's covenant, which god commanded you to perform, ten commandments; and God wrote them upon two tablets of stone. And the Lord commanded me at that time to teach you statutes and judgments, that you might do them in the land where you go over to possess it.”

As this text was taught by Dr. Tamar Komionkowsky, it became clear that what Moses was describing here was a very different experience. Rather than thunder and lighting coming “down” from the heavens and the cloud descending onto the mountain, here the fire, cloud and smoke are simply there. However, whereas in Exodus God promises the people that they will “see God's presence” (I know this is problematic, but I cannot address that just now) here is is made clear that the people hear the words, but they don't see anything. All they heard was a disembodied voice coming from the cloud. In reading this, it is important to remember that in Deuteronomy, Moses is talking to the descendants of those who were at Sinai. For that generation had died off in the intervening 40 years. He is also speaking to them as they prepare to enter that very land of which he spoke. So it is quite possible that these realities colored his recounting of the story.

As I listened to these teachings and tried to assimilate them for myself, the question that kept arising for me was not so much “what did they hear at Sinai (if anything)” or “which version is the 'real' story?” but rather, “why does it matter?”

The accounts of Sinai in Exodus and in Deuteronomy are different enough, and yet they point to the same truth, that Sinai is a mythic symbol of the human encounter with the Divine. For each of us the divine-human encounter is different. In fact, for each individual the experience is different from moment to moment. There is a midrash which states that each person present at Sinai heard God's words in their own way, according to their own strengths or abilities. In addition, another midrash states that all of our souls were present at Sinai. And so this isn't just a past event (whether one views it as historical or mythic). It is something which we have all experienced. It is something we all conitnue to experience. And each time the experience is the same, yet different.

And so, perhaps each of these different narratives or interpretations is simply pointing to a different possible way in for each of us to encounters the Divine in our lives. For some of us in certain moments, we want or need to see the fire and smoke, the thunder and lightening, but we don't want to hear the voice. We want stand in awe and fear of the unknowable God, or perhaps we simply want to maintain the sense of mystery. Simply put, don't want to know too much.

For others and at other times, we want to know God intimately. We don't want to get our God through an interpreter, such as Moses. We want certainty. We want to “hear and see” God. The smoke and fire, bells and whistles, etc. is all well and good. But what we really need is proof. Perhaps it is proof of God's existence or perhaps we simply need proof that we still have a relationship with God!

And for still others, the Deuteronomy narrative makes the most sense. We want some pomp and ceremony, the smoke and fire, but we don't need the descending cloud, the thunder and lightening or the blasts of the shofar. We don't need a top down, hierarchical experience of the Divine. In this case, the smoke, fire and cloud is enough. For smoke and fire may be awesome, but very much a part of nature. The blast of the shofar, the thunder and lightening, the cloud descending, those are all part of a heavenly show that is unnecessary. We want to find our God in something more accessible and imminent. We don't need or want to experience God's transcendence in order for us to experience God. As a matter of fact, to think of God as transcending this world, makes it more difficult for us to connect with the Divine. We want to experience the imminent and intimate nature of God as we find God in our world and in our lives.

In the end, whichever narrative or interpretation works best for us in any given moment, they are all about one thing. They are about experiencing the Divine. And the essence of this connection or encounter is pointed to in the final lines of the midrash in which God eventually promises to come down on the mountain so that they people can see and here the Divine presence. For this midrash concludes: “So too, in the future, Israel will see the face of the shekhinah (divine presence) eye to eye, as it is said, 'for they shall see eye to eye' and it is said 'Behold, this is our God, we have waited for God.'” (Mehilta d' Rabbi Shimon bar yochai, 19).

All of these versions of the story are about us wanting to experience God's presence and to see God “eye to eye.” But what does that mean, if God is not corporeal and if we are told elsewhere in the Torah that no human being can “look upon God” and live? For me this is simple, the eye-to-eye relationship is the relationship between human beings. It is in the intimate encounters we have with others that we find the Divine. Some of those encounters bear more resemblance to Exodus, with all of the storm and drama. Others are simpler and more “natural.” Some encounters require negotiations and others simply occur. Each encounter is different, yet each has the potential for being an encounter with the Divine. As we expreience the human and the Divine in each moment, let us not seek to evaluate or judge each encounter. Let us simply experience them as they occur moment by moment.

By simply being present with each encounter, we not only allow ourselves to connect more intimately and honestly with others, but we also experience a form of Divine revelation. That way in each moment of each interaction, we have the potential to encounter Sinai once again.


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