Our double portion of B’har-B’chukotai opens with a tantalizingly simple statement: “The Eternal One spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai” (Lev. 25:1). This may not, yet, strike you as remarkable. God, after all, talks to Moses all the time, and no one contests (at least within the Torah itself) that some of that talking happened at Sinai. Still, why mention that now? Why, after the whole Book of Leviticus with all its many laws and details, does the Torah suddenly return us to Mount Sinai?
Medieval commentator extraordinaire Rashi, responding to a possibly heretical idea, asserts that this phrase means precisely the opposite of what you might think. It would be natural to assume that because the Torah makes special mention that these specific things were said on Mount Sinai, other things weren’t. Maybe, for example, Moses got the general ideas of the mitzvot at Sinai but then worked out the details himself when he came down from the mountain. There are, after all, some mitzvot first given in Exodus or Leviticus that are reiterated with new and different details in Deuteronomy. Just maybe, a person might think, the Sinai moment wasn’t quite as complete as we would think. Not so insists Rashi! The Torah brings us back to Sinai in this verse precisely to insist that “every Divine command that was spoken to Moses came from Sinai, including both general principles and minute details” (Rashi on Lev 25:1).
Returning to Sinai, according to Rashi’s teaching, means to dig into the details of Jewish text and law. As the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning, the weekly Torah study group at my congregation took a deep look at the tradition of n’tilat yadayim, the ritual of handwashing. We learned halachic (legal) texts, midrashim, pieces from the Talmud, and contemporary sources, and created our own Sinai moment — connecting our 2020 ritual of 20-second handwashing to those principles and details revealed, at least according to Rashi, at the original Sinai.
Spanish commentator Ramban, who, as is his custom, restates Rashi’s points only to vehemently disagree with them, saying “and this seems entirely wrong in my eyes,” sees this moment differently. This is, he believes, just the next step in the story. Moses went up to Sinai, got the Torah, came down and dealt with the Golden Calf, in response to which the people needed to build the Tabernacle. Once they had the Tabernacle, they needed to learn how to use it, and those instructions ended with last week’s Torah portion. Now, at the beginning of this week’s portion, as we shift our focus away from sacrifices and look forward to our new lives in the Land of Israel, the Torah reminds us that these laws are just the next chapter of the Torah taught to Moses at Sinai. The important message is not about minute details and general principles — it is about the vital connection between the Sinai moment and these mitzvot that take effect only when we enter the Promised Land.
Returning to Sinai, according to Ramban’s teaching, means connecting our immediate story to the larger narratives of our people and our tradition. This year, at my very unusual Passover seders, as we gathered together with family and friends over Zoom, we considered that this was not the first time Jews have needed to adapt our Passover observance. We talked about Conversos in Spain, partisans in the Warsaw Ghetto, the Jews sheltering within their homes during the 10th plague, and we made a Sinai moment as we took our place in the story of our people stretching back to the original Exodus thousands of years ago.
The Talmud, in one of its most incredible stories, offers yet another vision of the Sinai moment. In Tractate M’nachot 29b we learn that, according to Rav, while Moses was on Mount Sinai he took a magical journey forward in time to the yeshiva of Rabbi Akiba. Sitting in the back row while the great Akiba taught, Moses was utterly confused. His spirit fell as the arguments spun around in circles he just couldn’t follow. One of the other students raised a hand and asked “Rabbi, where in the Torah did you learn this?” Akiba answered: Halachah l’Moshe MiSinai, “This law was given to Moses at Sinai.” Then Moses’ mind was set at ease. His own Torah, he understood, was so much larger than even he himself could understand.
Returning to Sinai, according to Rav’s teaching, means seeing ourselves as embodying Torah that looks forward at generations to come. My Grandma Elaine, of blessed memory, taught me many things — none of which she would consider to be of religious import. Perhaps the most Jewish person I’ve ever known, she asserted that her own Judaism was “Epicurean” in nature, which mostly meant that she loved Jewish food and music. My own Jewish life, defined by observance, study, and prayer, would be an absolute mystery to her — and yet I see her in just about everything I do. Like Moses, she didn’t know where her Torah was going, but its power and depth have grown long after her passing. When I imagine my own future grandchildren, I think of Moses at Akiba’s yeshiva, and I am moved as I return to Sinai.
That original Sinai moment back in the Book of Exodus, when true inspiration — surprising, unpredictable, and unquestionably Divine — suddenly descended upon the world, is by its very nature mythical. Biblical scholarship and historical inquiry aside, Moses’ receiving Torah at Sinai is a basic tenet of our faith that we pass on from generation to generation. It is one of those fundamental beliefs that we love to struggle with.
To return to Sinai is to acknowledge that there are real moments of Revelation. To return to Sinai is to admit that we don’t have all the answers. To return to Sinai is to let go of our rationalist selves and open ourselves up to higher truth. It is simultaneously the simplest idea to understand and the hardest concept to swallow.
As we face a world unlike any we have ever known, and the challenges ahead seem terrifying, the pathways leading up the mountain towards Revelation and inspiration are even more important for us to follow. In this moment it is our hearts, not our heads, which hold the answers. Sometimes, like Rashi, digging into details of observance and practice transports us to something bigger than ourselves. Sometimes, like Ramban, our spirits will be elevated by choosing to see our own present as a sacred reflection of our people’s past. And sometimes, like Moses standing beside Akiba, the experience that lifts us towards an unknown yet hopeful future is the act of standing beside the generations yet to come, and imagining what they might need from us now.
The Book of Leviticus, which we finish this week, closes the same way our portion begins. “These are the commandments that the Eternal gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai” (Lev. 27:34). Revelation, inspiration far beyond human understanding, was given to us at Sinai, and so when logic fails and the heart is left wanting, it is to Sinai that we must return.
Cantor David Berger serves as the cantor of KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation in Chicago, IL. Currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the Chicago Theological Seminary, he is honored to be the inaugural Scholar in Residence for the American Conference of Cantors.