The Rabbis k
The Rabbis k
We have arrived. All of the stories; all the of the generations between Adam and Eve, and the matriarchs and patriarchs; and 400 years of slavery in Egypt now culminate in the Israelites’ triumphant redemption. They all lead to this singular moment: the Revelation at Sinai. In Parashat Yitro, Moses guides the Israelite people to Mt. Sinai where they encounter God, experiencing all the drama and glory of Revelation.
Biblical commentators consistently note that one of the exceptional aspects of the Revelation at Sinai is that it is a communal revelation. Every previous moment of revelation in the Torah consists of God speaking privately to an individual or two — Noah, Abraham, Moses, and so on. Private revelation is the most common in other religions as well: an individual experiences God and then shares that revelation more broadly.
At Mount Sinai God was pleased to hear the vast multitude of diverse Israelites say in one united voice: “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8) and God wanted additional assurance that they would follow through on this commitment. God told them: “I require worthy guarantors that you will observe Torah.” And the people of Israel replied: “Sovereign of the Universe, our ancestors will be our guarantors.” God was unimpressed. “Your guarantors need guarantors themselves, for they have not been without fault,” said Adonai. And so they responded: “Our prophets will guarantee it.” God retorted: “I have found fault with them also.” Thus the people offered this pledge: “Let our children be our guarantors.” And with a smile God concurred: “These are excellent guarantors, because of them I will give it to you” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:4). The b’rit, “covenant,” advances and Torah is revealed.
The Revelation on Mt. Sinai . . . the giving of the Ten Commandments . . . our Torah portion, Yitro, describes the scene with great fanfare. The text has given cinematographers plenty of good material: thunder and lightning, smoke rising up into the sky, the whole mountain shaking violently, and the loud blaring of a horn, sometimes specifically called a shofar. Miraculous? Inspiring? Awesome? Yes, our Sages teach, but it was also really, really noisy.
When the medieval rabbis read about Sinai, they focus our attention on that seemingly unimportant detail of just how loud it all must have been. One medieval commentator, the French rabbi known as Rashbam, teaches that the description of God answering Moses "in thunder" is really a metaphor about the volume of God's voice—God had to shout to be heard over all of the other noise at Sinai! (see Rashbam on Exodus 19:19). And God was shouting for good reason. "The blast [of the shofar] was louder than any sound that had ever been heard before," Rashbam's contemporary, the Spanish sage Ibn Ezra writes on Exodus 19:16.
In Yitro, we find ourselves at the base of Sinai encountering God as one people, as we receive Torah. It is a sacred moment meant to reverberate down the generations. We were all there. We all stood at Sinai.
Revelation is a gift. It disrupts our senses and prepares us for something entirely new. However, revelation of any kind, especially the sacred kind, doesn't just fall in our laps. We come to Sinai; Sinai doesn't come to us. The story of Sinai teaches us to prepare ourselves—for Revelation could be around the corner at any moment if our eyes are open.
One of the most profound gifts of Sinai as a model is that it teaches us that we need not travel alone on our spiritual journeys. When we gathered at the base of the mountain, we didn't show up alone. We arrived as one community.
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Despite our imaginative efforts to relive the drama of Sinai each time we read these verses, Revelation remains for most of us a distant memory.
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