In less than a week, on the sixth day of the Hebrew month of Sivan, Jews around the world will gather together in synagogues to celebrate an event that, as much as any other, shaped the course of human history that would follow. I refer, of course, to ma’a’mad Har Sinai– the revelation of Torah on Sinai to the ancient Israelites.
There are many historical events and eras that I have often fantasized being able to experience. I would have loved to meet Shakespeare and Mozart, to know what it felt like to stand in the courtyard of the Temple in Jerusalem on a sacred festival day, to meet Rashi, or Maimonides. But more than any of these, I have always wanted to know what it might have felt like to be standing at Sinai on that awesome day, when God and Israel encountered each other in a direct and unmistakable way.
My fantasies have only been fueled by the fact that we have no true witnessing of the event itself in a historical sense. In his magnificent volume “God in Search of Man,” in the chapter titled “the Nature of Revelation,” Abraham Joshua Heschel compared Chapters 19 and 20 of the book of Exodus, where the revelation at Sinai is chronicled, to an impressionist painting, as opposed to a photograph. To read them as literal truth, Heschel said, is to impoverish them, to strip them of the divine mystery and grandeur that they allude to. Human language, he said, is too poor to express in words ultimate spiritual truth. Rabbinic literature is rich in descriptions of the Sinai experience, but they all fall into the category of Midrash: interpretive, often anthropomorphic legends that are far too fanciful to be taken as literal truth.
And, of course, I can’t omit that other great, post-Biblical source on the experience at Sinai: Cecil B. De Mille! How many people have had their mental images of the Sinai experience shaped by Charlton Heston’s other-worldly gaze and flying lightning bolts engraving ancient Canaanite letters into the stone tablets (also the product of rabbinic Midrash, by the way). The Ten Commandments is fun to watch, but it’s hardly an historical source on revelation.
What is true – and this is bound to frustrate as much as enlighten – is that we ultimately don’t really know what happened at Sinai. We can only believe in whatever version of the tradition has been handed down to us as truth, and, in our own very individual and idiosyncratic ways, make it meaningful for ourselves.
Orthodox Jews will largely accept the Oral Torah as we have it as the literal word of God revealed meta-historically to Moses on Sinai, along with the Oral Torah that was to follow by way of expansion and explanation. Conservative Jews, and in great measure Reform Jews as well, will largely regard the Torah, both Written and Oral, as having developed within historical process, with human beings attempting to translate the revelation of Sinai into sacred scripture. Understanding these two sentences and their implications for Jewish law and practice are the sine qua non of understanding modern Judaism.
But political and ideological stripes aside, Shavuot – the anniversary of the revelation experience at Sinai – is the common tie that binds us all to our shared history. No matter what label we wear or what kind of synagogue we choose to affiliate with (or not), Sinai brought us all into an eternal covenant with God that would connect us one to the Other forever. When our ancestors said, “We shall do and we shall obey,” they committed us as well. How we translate that commitment into a modus vivendi for the twenty-first century is surely not a point of consensus within the Jewish community, but our varied attempts to answer the challenge are the stuff of which all of modern Judaism is made. Nothing less than our very connection to God is at stake.
In that spirit, Sinai made us all one. And in that spirit, no matter how you understand the legacy of Sinai and how it impacts your life today, I wish you a hag sameah! May we all be privileged to feel the immediacy of God’s presence as our ancestors did when they stood at Sinai, and may the Torah – no matter how we understand its origins – continue to show us the way forward.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.