In this week’s Torah reading, Yitro, let us look at the moment when the Torah was given at Mount Sinai, Shemot (Exodus) Chapters 19–20. What I have always found fascinating about this story, are the sights, sounds, and weather. There are descriptions of clouds, thunder, lighting, smoke, fire, and the mountain shudders to the sound of the shofar. Why does God give the Torah in such dramatic circumstances? Looking at the narrative, many automatically assume that the reason for the atmospheric conditions is to make the people fear God. That would be the case if the experience at Mount Sinai had been solely for the purpose of the giving the Torah. However, the event was also the occasion for God’s self-revelation to the Israelites, so that they would have a personal, direct spiritual communion with God.
Rashi, in his comments on Shemot 19:17, puts it very beautifully when he describes the interchange between God and the people at Mount Sinai: “the presence of God went forth to meet the people like a Chatan (groom) who goes forth to meet the Kalah (bride).” It was not simply an experience of God giving us laws. Therefore, if the second purpose of the revelation at Mount Sinai was for the Israelites to encounter God as a couple getting married, why would God choose to announce the divine presence with clouds, the shofar, thunder, lightning, smoke, fire, and the mountain shuddering?
Imagine if this were your wedding; it would not seem to be the most intimate experience. Yet this is what happens at Sinai. I would have thought that such intimidating sights and sounds would hinder the divine revelation. Why is this intimate moment between God and the Israelites accompanied by such a cacophony of sounds? What is the reason? For an answer, we need to look closely at the circumstances. When people are in the midst of a storm with thunder and lighting, they have to make an enormous effort to hear and see. Add to this the sound of the shofar, clouds, smoke, fire, and a shuddering mountain, and they need to struggle even harder to understand what is happening. I believe that this was precisely God’s intention for creating a tumultuous atmosphere at Mount Sinai to accompany God’s self-revelation. God wanted to make the experience complex for the Israelites because God is complex to understand. God is infinite and we as human beings are finite. Therefore, trying to have a relationship with God who is infinite is both daunting and challenging.
In addition, such distracting weather conditions and sounds had the effect of making the experience at Mt. Sinai different for everyone present. This was not only true for each individual interaction with God then, but is true anytime and anywhere we interact with or try to gain a better understanding of God. This point is well illustrated by the following story.
There was once a school for blind children that went on a class trip to a farm where they let the children feed and play with the animals. A teacher with sight accompanied three blind children. They all went to the pen where the goats were kept. After the children played with the goats for a while, the teacher asked, “What is a goat like?” The first child said, “It’s soft and furry.” The second child answered, “No, it’s hard and scratchy,” and the third child said, “No, it’s wet and slippery.” How can we explain the children having such different experiences with a goat? The first child petted the goat’s fur, the second touched the goat’s horns, and the third child’s face had been licked by the goat. Each child gave a correct answer, but it was only partially correct.
The same is true for the way we experience God. We, as finite human beings can only give incomplete answers about God. Therefore, we should try to collect as many partial answers as possible. It is important that spiritual communities give their members different views of understanding God. Those that try to limit the way people look at God, limit the spiritual growth of their members and worse yet, they limit God.
Once we truly understand that we look at God in so many ways we will see God everywhere. I truly experienced God’s revelation at Sinai this week. Literally at Mount Sinai. Not the Mount Sinai in the desert. The one on the Upper East Side of New York. I received my first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. I was inoculated, because in addition to my work as a rabbi at the Jewish Learning Center, I also serve as a chaplain at the New York State Chaplain’s Task Force. Being at Mount Sinai, was truly miraculous. I marveled, at the extraordinary efficiency, kindness and compassion of the staff and volunteers at Mount Sinai, as they dealt with such a large and diverse crowd of New Yorkers. Everyone in line also acted with such respect and appreciation.
I was so moved; I began to reflect. I meditated on the memory of the countless souls who have been lost due to this pandemic, as well as their grieving family members they left behind. I gave thanks to God for sending to the world incredible scientists, doctors, nurses, medical professionals, and administrators for developing and disseminating this vaccine. I prayed for everyone around the globe that they may soon be vaccinated and that healing come to all those who are sick. I hoped for when we will see family, friends, work, socialize, attend services, due acts of Tikun Olam (fixing the world) and study in a more open and freer way. I dreamed of a time depression will end, for many who are suffering from isolation at this moment. Most, most, of all, I was profoundly moved by my revelation at Mount Sinai.