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What Did God Say at Mount Sinai?

  • What Did God Say at Mount Sinai?

    Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
D'var Torah By: 

Focal Point

  • On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses let the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 19:16–17)
  • The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19:19)

D'var Torah

In Exodus 19 and 20 we read the description of the tumultuous and chaotic scene that culminates in the giving of the Ten Commandments. This is the moment of revelation, of the “giving of the Torah,” matan Torah. In this moment, the b’rit, or “covenant,” is sealed in a new way: direct encounter is translated into text. The language described is the language of speech, but even the most traditional of Jews recognize that use of the word “speech” for divine communication conceals more than it reveals.

Philosophers and theologians contemplate whether the words recorded in the scroll are the 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 experience, we are told, takes place in fear and trembling. The people, led by Moses, move toward God but remain at the bottom of the mountain.

I have always been intrigued by the verses “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for Adonaihad 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 19:18–19). Here, it seems that Moses initiates the encounter and God responds. So, if we reach out to God, will God indeed reach out for us? This is the essence of the ongoing struggle between faith and doubt, between feeling God's presence and experiencing God's absence.

How did God respond to Moses? The text says that God answered him b’kol (Exodus 19:19). The Jewish Publication Society translation renders b’kol as "in thunder," but b’kol can also mean “in a voice.” Does God respond to Moses in thunder that Moses then translates into words, or does God offer the actual words? On one level it makes a tremendous difference. If God utters the words, they seem more important than if they are Moses’s interpretation of the thunder. Yet no word of Torah stands uninterpreted. Midrash teaches that the Torah has seventy faces. The richness of Torah text, rooted in experience, has made it the foundation stone of Judaism. And religious Jews of any denomination have the same question about the text: What is God saying to me and to us through this text at this moment? While some are sure they know the answer, others are uncertain.

Two poems by Merle Feld (cited below) add an interesting dimension to the question of what was revealed at Mount Sinai. “We All Stood Together” reminds us that much of what we understand as revelation has been transmitted and interpreted by men. For centuries, men have shared their understanding of the encounter with women. Today women’s voices are being raised across the Jewish religious spectrum, offering new ways to listen and respond to the divine descent at Mount Sinai.

“Sinai Again” reflects on the growing desire and the continual difficulty of restoring the Sinai moment to the center of Jewish existence. Much of the community responds better to the message of redemption and liberation carried by the Pesach story than to the discipline of the deed mitzvot of Mount Sinai. We long for direct encounter. “God, speak to me,” we say. “Why did you speak only to our ancestors?” Our need and longing for God is great, but our ability to enter into relationship has been hampered by years of education and practice, which have turned God into a concept and not a living presence.

For me, reading Yitro is less about the Ten Commandments than it is about the meaning of living in relationship with God. It calls upon us to make an ancient experience our own by celebrating a moment when God and Israel meet. This moment is enshrined in glorious sacred texts that, when studied with diligence and love, reveal the majesty of the Divine and allow us to experience and be intimate with God. The Torah—written and oral—is the greatest gift that any people can receive. Talmud Torah, “the study of Torah,” is the way to a full and meaningful Jewish existence. It is how we renew the sacred dimension of life in every living moment.

Each of us is summoned to return to Sinai. For many of us, it is a return to a familiar place where we once again see the mountain wrapped in smoke, shaking in volcanic eruption; hear the shofar's echo; and experience the still, small voice that changed the world forever and changes us each time we hear its silence. It is a voice that turns us to study and deed, Torah and mitzvot.

Sometimes we return to the mountain in hope and anticipation and are greeted by a silence that leaves us lonely and longing. Then we are challenged to find a way to turn to study and deeds, Torah and mitzvot, as the essence of Jewish life and to remain open to the deeper possibility of directly experiencing the Divine. Faith and doubt are twins. Each grows stronger at different times and in different ways within each of us. When we read Yitro—in fact, each time we read Torah—we take both of them with us to the mountain. Legend teaches that we were all there at the mountain in the beginning. Let's make our study a grand reunion of the collective Jewish soul.


  • . . . this could be a holy place again
    if you would just give me a sign
    a thrush or a hare
    or a mountain goat
    gracefully coming toward me
    (Merle Feld, excerpt from “Sinai Again,” in A Spiritual Life: A Jewish Feminist Journey [Albany: SUNY Press, 1999], p. 239)
  • My brother and I were at Sinai
    He kept a journal
    of what he saw
    of what he heard
    of what it all meant to him

    I wish I had such a record
    of what happened to me there

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t
I’m always holding a baby
one of my own
or one for a friend
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down
(Merle Feld, excerpt from “We All Stood Together,” ibid., p. 205)


  1. Considering In “Sinai Again,” the narrator asks God for a sign to indicate that a place is holy. Do you believe that we need signs from God to experience holiness and holy places?
  2. Do you agree with the perspective of the poem “We All Stood Together,” which depicts the experiences of men and women at Sinai as distinctly different?
  3. What is revealed at Mount Sinai is God's presence. The question is, how do we turn that into a way of living?
  4. Studying Torah can be fun or interesting. It can be boring or irrelevant. The next time you study Torah ask: What is God trying to teach me? What does God want me to do? See if that makes a difference.

Peter S. Knobel is Senior Rabbi Emeritus of Beth Emet The Free Synagogue in Evanston, Illinois.

Reference Materials: 

Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 508–565; Revised Edition, pp. 468–506;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 407–426
Haftarah, Isaiah 6:1–7:6; 9:5–6
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 710–713; Revised Edition, pp. 507–509

When do we read Yitro

2021, February 6
24 Shevat, 5781
2022, January 22
20 Shevat, 5782
2023, February 11
20 Shevat, 5783
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