On Rosh HaShanah night we read the following in Gates of Repentance1:
The words You spoke in stone and thunder
The mountain smoked
And the dismayed multitude
Stood off, hearing the first time
The words they could not refuse,
Fearing the burden and the God that set
Them in history.
And there are mountains still. We are the Jews.
We cannot forget
In my mind's eye I picture the scene at Mount Sinai. I imagine that I am standing at the bottom of the smoking mountain with more than six hundred thousand former slaves hearing the blast of the shofar and experiencing the Presence of God and responding, Naaseh v'nishma, "All that the Eternal has spoken we will faithfully do!" (Exodus 24:7; see also 19:8, 24:3). In the midst of my reverie, I look out at the congregation and I wonder: What is my congregation thinking? Do they feel the awesome power of the moment? Does the ancient experience draw them into the covenantal promise?
This week's parashah, Yitro, describes the confusion and fear surrounding the giving of the Torah. God and Moses engage in a strange dialogue. There is a scurrying up and down the mountain. God tells Moses that the purpose of God's descent is, "that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after" (Exodus 19:9). This implies that only if the people experience God's Presence themselves will they believe Moses. But the people are also warned not to come too close: it is dangerous to be too close to God. The people are so frightened that they beg Moses to speak to God for them and tell them what God wants.
I have always been intrigued by the verses, "Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Eternal had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder" (Exodus 19:18-20). It seems that Moses initiates the encounter and God responds. The word bakol, which is translated as "in thunder," can also mean "with a voice." Is God's response to Moses delivered in thunder that Moses translates into words or is it God who offers the words? On one level it makes a tremendous difference. If the words are God's words, they may seem more important than Moses's interpretation of the thunder. Yet no word of Torah stands without interpretation. The midrash teaches that Torah has seventy faces (B'midbar Rabbah 13:15). It is the richness of the text rooted in experience has made it the foundation stone of Judaism. Observant Jews of any denomination ask the same question of the text: "What is God saying to me/us through this text at this moment?" Some are sure they know the answer; for others there is uncertainty.
The direct encounter at Sinai is translated into text called Aseret HaDib'rot, the Ten Utterances, or as they are more commonly called, the Ten Commandments (see Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 12a; Shabbat 86b). But even the most traditional Jews recognize that calling them "utterances" ("things that are spoken," from the Hebrew root dalet-bet-reish, meaning "speak") conceals more than it reveals. Philosophers and theologians contemplate whether the words recorded in the scroll are words of God or the human response to the Presence of God. From that moment of intimacy forward we have struggled with the meaning and implications of being bound to God.
The conversation results in the articulation of the Ten Commandments, the relatively brief sentences that became the centerpiece of the covenant. They comprise a summary statement that has captured the religious imagination of Jews and Christians. So important were the Ten Commandments that they were included in the siddur and were recited daily. But because more than the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai the Rabbis removed them from the siddur, lest the part was confused with whole. The Sinai experience was a beginning whereby the Divine entered into the life of the whole Jewish people to start a dialogue on the meaning of their mission. As important as the Ten Commandments are, we cannot allow them to limit the scope of our obligation or our exploration.
The Sinai moment gives birth to Torah - a complex work of law and narrative codified in five books - followed by Prophets and Writings. These three sections comprise Tanach, and are followed by Mishnah, Talmud, midrash, codes, commentaries, and Kabbalah, which continue the conversation. All of Judaism is a commentary on the Sinai moment.
For Jews, Judaism is a conversation - a wondrous and often raucous debate. The give and take of one generation speaking to another across time contributes to the meaning of our existence. Each student and each teacher adds to the tradition. Torah speaks across the ages because each age speaks to it and listens to it.
We live in an exciting time when texts are accessible and relatively inexpensive, and teachers are readily available. The best engagement with the texts is in chevruta study. Two or three students read the text together, sharing their questions and their insights; then they share them with others who study in small groups and then receive the guidance of a competent teacher. True learning takes place when the texts become ours: then, they can touch our hearts and our lives. Only if we make the texts our own will Sinai and its call become real. One need not believe in any single interpretation of the Sinai moment. Did we hear God's words? Did we hear a single word? Did we perceive a single letter? Or did God open our hearts to being a people with an important story to tell, a way of worship to share, and a concept of justice by which to live?
To heed the call naaseh v'nishma, to "faithfully hearken," is to enter into the ancient-modern dialogue or debate that has given and continues to give meaning to the words Jew and Judaism. It is to believe that we can make a difference by studying and living through the words and texts that can be traced to the scary moment when the mountain smoked and the shofar sounded and Moses spoke and God answered bakol (with a voice? in thunder?).
- Gates of Repentance: The New Union Prayerbook for the Days of Awe (New York: CCAR, 1978, revised 1996) p. 22
Rabbi Peter S. Knobel serves as interim rabbi at Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Florida. He is rabbi emeritus at Beth Emet the Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois, and past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.