Shavuot celebrates Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. What I have always found fascinating about the story of God’s Revelation at Sinai, is the lead-up to Matan Torah. Before God gives the Torah to B’nai Yisrael (the Israelites) in Chapter 19 of Shemot (Exodus), the sound of the shofar is heard. God then sends down clouds, thunder, lightning, smoke, and fire. As if that were not enough, God causes the mountain to shudder. What is going on here? Why all the “special effects” before the giving of the Torah?
Many assume that the purpose of the prelude is to inspire Yirat Hashem, (a fear of God) in the people. If the experience at Mount Sinai was only about giving the Torah, the Yirat Hashem explanation might suffice. However, the moment at Sinai was also for God to reveal God’s self to the Jewish people in order that they have a more direct spiritual interaction with God.
The commentator Rashi, responds to Shemot in a beautiful way, describing the experience between the Jewish people and God at Mount Sinai by stating that, “the Shechinah (the presence of God) went forth to meet them (the people) like a chatan (a groom), who goes forth to meet the kalah, (the bride).” In other words, the pyrotechnics were not simply an experience of God teaching a class on Jewish law, but also a chance for God to interact with God’s people, as loving partners interact.
Why then would God precede Matan Torah with clouds, the shofar, thunder, lighting, smoke, fire and the mountain shuddering? Imagine that you are getting married. As you stand beneath the chupah (the marital canopy) with your bashert (soulmate), the Rabbi pulls out a Shofar and lets out a Tekiah (a loud long blast), and then a cloud descends with thunder and lightning accompanied by smoke, fire and the shuddering of the floor. This does not sound like a particularly romantic experience. In fact, these types of sights and sounds might be a hindrance during the divine revelation. During this intimate time between God and B’nai Yisrael, it could distract people from this spiritual experience.
So what is happening here? When people are in the midst of a thunder and lightning storm, they have to make a huge effort to hear and see what is going on. If you add the sound of the Shofar, clouds, smoke, fire and a shuddering mountain into the mix, they need to struggle even harder to understand what is happening. I believe this was precisely God’s intention. God wanted to make the experience complex for B’nai Yisrael. It is, and should be, complex and challenging to understand God, whose infinite nature contrasts with finite human beings.
There is even more to the sights and sounds insofar as they open up the possibility of each person present at Mount. Sinai experiencing the revelation in a different way. This is not only true of the interaction with God at Sinai, but anytime we interact or try to gain a better understanding of God.
A story helps illustrate this point. There was once a school for blind children that went on a class trip to a farm where they let children feed and play with the animals. Three blind children accompanied by a teacher with sight went over to the goat pen. 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 said, “No it’s hard and scratchy.” The third child said, “No it’s wet and slippery.” How do we account for the children having such different experiences with the goat? The first child pet the goat’s fur, the second child touched the goat’s horns, and the third child was licked by the goat all over their face.
Each of the children’s answer was correct, but only partially so. The same is true in the way we experience God. We as finite human beings can only have partial 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 on understanding God. Communities that try to limit the way people look at God limit the spiritual growth of their members and worse yet, they limit God.
As we celebrate Shavuot this year, we are still very limited, due the pandemic, in where we can go and who we can see. Synagogues are still closed. However, we are not limited to think, to grow spiritually, to pray, and to learn. My blessing this Shavuot is that we all take part in the revelation at Mount Sinai and accept God’s Torah. Chag Sameach