Revelation, the most central theme of Shavuot, is the most powerful and central moment in our religious narrative yet sadly it is close to impossible to grasp today in the 21st century. We must still, nonetheless, strive to access the experience of our ancestors. There is an interesting Talmudic debate regarding how the Israelites responded to the intensity of the primary revelation at Sinai:
And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: With every single statement that emanated from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed is He, the souls of the Jewish people departed (from their bodies), as it is stated: “my soul departed as He spoke.” Now, since their souls departed after the first statement, how could they have received the second statement? (G-d) brought down the dew with which He will resurrect the dead in the future, and He resurrected them,” (Shabbat 88b).
However, as the rabbis continue, in the same passage, a discordant encounter is described:
And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: With every single statement that emanated from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed is He, the Jewish people retreated twelve miles, and the ministering angels helped them to totter back, (Shabbat 88b).
There is a distinct paradox evident in the account of the Israelites approaching the Divine Superpower. While the first narrative tells a story of love (a return back to G-d), the second reveals a fearful encounter (backing away with awe). The first is about the human limits of truth and the latter is about the human limits of courage.
There are a few unique features to revelation that must be outlined. First, by necessity, we learn something we did not know before when we receive revelation. We are startled and affected because something very new and powerful has been learned. Secondly, in religious revelation, we do not merely walk away with new knowledge. There is also a relationship that has been deeply strengthened in the process. Thirdly, revelation is only effective if it leads to emotional transformation. We cannot live the same way after attaining this new knowledge and after this relationship has been strengthened. Our minds, hearts, and relationship to the Revealer are transformed.
We are called upon to strive to imitate the Divine and thus create our own relationships that include intimate revelation; indeed, revelation should not be limited to intellectual and religious learning. In these special and revelatory moments, we share and connect very deeply with those we love. I recall the first time my wife shared that she loved me. That wonderful revelation was not only transformative in the moment; it also profoundly reshaped my past narrative and my future vision.
In our lives, we share concern with, and for, those we love and we assertively embrace justice with, and for, strangers. So too, must we embrace learning with strangers and revelation with those whom we love. It is a sacred space where we can let down our guard, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and embrace a shared experience that will necessarily change us. Some commentators suggest that G-d only revealed the aleph of anochi (the first word of the 10 commandments). This perspective serves as a powerful reminder that spiritual presence is just as important as the actual content of what is being expressed. Sometimes just an aleph, spoken with all of one’s being, can be deeply revelatory.
One goal that we should keep in mind, when participating in religious life, is to take apocalyptic and cataclysmic moments, from our text and tradition, and assimilate them into daily life. Sinaitic revelation should become a part of daily prayer and living. The wedding chuppah should be carried into daily love and responsibilities. Even further, a near-death encounter can become a consistent reminder of the power and sanctity of time.
Revelation is not merely a historical phenomenon but a way of life. We can open our eyes and hearts to the profundity of the soul, the amazement of the universe, and the beauty of loving relationships. In sacred moments, G-d continues to speak with us. Shavuot is a reminder of (and a re-commitment to) the great historic revelation but the holiday also aims to reinforce the imperative to embrace new spontaneous sacred moments of Divine and human revelation in our lives today.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of five books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”