In one week's time the Jewish world will rise in their seats in order to reenact the most dramatic moment in our people's long history, the moment when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai. There we will be, gathered in our synagogues celebrating the holiday of Shavuot and when it comes to that moment of holiness we will rise and strain our ears to hear the sacred opening words of the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments: "I am The Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage, you shall have no other gods besides Me."
And if you are like me, you will start to daydream: what did it look like that day? Was the mountain truly aflame, was it trembling in fear, cognizant of its role in this unique moment of Theophany? Were there bolts of lighting, peals of thunder, and did the Children of Israel recognize the gravity of this moment? What was it that Moses witnessed? Did he turn away in fear, or was he drawn to the deafening sounds of revelation? If God answered him "with voice", what did that voice sound like? Was it low or was it high? Did God speak in what we would call words, and were those words loud, or were they akin to the ''still small voice'' that Elijah heard?
Before I know it, the Torah reading is over and I have missed my chance at truly listening to those sacred words.
This is my perennial problem: I am a post-modern Jew, living in a post-modern world. A world of reality television, where the masses choose to watch "life" unfold on television as opposed to paying attention to "actual" reality. A world where nearly every second of film ever created is available online, ready to be downloaded at the touch of a button. And I live in a world where there is a 24-hour cable news cycle, where last month we watched the horrific events of the Boston Bombing as it was live-streamed into our living rooms. So then it stands to reason that when I think of the events of Mount Sinai, my well-trained mind cannot help but seek out the visual - for after all, seeing is believing and I desperately want to believe. And if so much of the Jewish religion is based on the precepts of the Torah, then I crave knowledge, concrete knowledge, as to what happened that day on Mount Sinai.
But ultimately I understand my mistake: I am sacrificing mystery on the altar of veracity.
But I am not the first to undergo this theological dilemma; the desire to know what cannot possibly be known. Rabbi Norman Lamm, former chancellor of Yeshiva University once took up this issue in an essay seeking to explain his conceptions of what occurred at Mount Sinai. In it, Lamm explains that he "accepts unapologetically the idea of the verbal revelation of the Torah," though he does not take seriously "the caricature of this idea which reduces Moses to a secretary taking dictation." In other words for Modern Orthodoxy the events at Mount Sinai are not only real in a historical sense, but they are real in a descriptive sense. That is, the Torah's descriptions are accurate and therefore Moses spoke to God, and God answered him "with voice." On the other hand, Lamm still does not want to completely concede the element of mystery found within the Torah's description of revelation; he is not willing to close the door to the possibilities of ambiguity. Therefore, he ultimately encourages us to understand that "How God spoke is a mystery; how Moses received this message is an irrelevancy. That God spoke is of the utmost significance..."
But lest I close my eyes and picture even a hazy depiction of this conversation between God and Moses, or the trembling mountain aflame, the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel warn me that to even attempt to understand the Bible's depiction of this moment as literal is indeed my first mistake. Heschel explains, "The world 'revelation' is like an exclamation; it is indicative rather than a descriptive term. Like all terms that express the ultimate, it points to its meaning rather than fully rendering it." In other words, Heschel wants us to think of the description of the Giving of the Torah which we read on Shavuot as poetry not prose, as drama and not as a reenactment. He goes on to say: "as a report about revelation the Bible itself is a midrash."
And so I sheepishly slink back into my chair in the synagogue to finish the rest of my Shavuot services. I reprimand myself for falling victim yet again to my incessant need to see, to experience, to understand. I remind myself that my sight and my ability to understand language are but two tools, two insufficient tools, by which I attempt to comprehend the world around me. And ultimately I concede. I concede to the unending power of the mystery and to the Source of the mystery itself, God.
Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, a Jewish summer camping experience under the educational auspices of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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