Have you ever stood at the foot of a mountain and felt overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and soaring heights? Throughout the centuries and in myriad cultures and civilizations, mountains inspire wonder and reverence. What is hidden among the crags and peaks? What happens when stone pierces the clouds and the border between heaven and earth is torn?
Whether in the snowy Himalayas or in the Peruvian Andes, the mountain is imagined as the home of the divine, a stepping stool between lower and upper worlds. Even in places with no natural mountains, like the desert plains of Egypt and of Sumer, people raised up pyramids and ziggurats to mimic the power of the mountain as a ‘stairway to heaven.’
The Hebrew Bible has its own stairways to heaven – among them Mount Sinai – the place where Moses met the divine presence and, following the Exodus from Egypt, where a mob of liberated slaves became the nation of Israel:
“On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a rising shofar blast… Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln furnace and the whole mountain trembled and quaked.” (Exodus 19: 16, 18)
In the clash of light and shadow, of dawn and dark; and with the thunderous discharge of heavenly horn – The Hebrew Bible declares the revelation of Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. Although the Bible relates Shavuot to the wheat harvest and the memory of Israelite bondage; post-Biblical Jewish tradition from the 2nd century CE places the mass revelation at Sinai at the center of the Shavuot festival.
No ancient text preserves the location of a specific mountain identified as Sinai or Horeb. No textual recollection of the revelation is accompanied by a map or GPS coordinates. No archeological evidence points to a specific hill, or tel, or rocky peak. It could well be Jewish tradition was unconcerned about the site of Sinai because Sinai is but one of many night camps traversed by the recently freed Hebrew slaves. Sinai is surely a dramatic moment of special import; however, it is a site of orientation. The constitution for a nation tasting freedom for the first time is laid out.
Sinai is a preparation for life, but life itself – and what this new nation will make of that life – will take place, not in myth, but in the physical landscape of the land known as Canaan – the promised land. What the nation will make of that promise and that landscape – a tale of the ebbs and flows of success and failure – is the Hebrew Bible’s main concern. It is no coincidence that the Hebrew Bible constantly repeats the necessity of recalling that we were slaves in Egypt. The memory of oppression and the gift of the responsibilities of freedom is the moral compass that must lead the march from Sinai to Zion; then and now.
Hopeful believers, unflinching explorers, well-intentioned scholars, and some charlatans have sought to identify Sinai’s exact position. Some place it in the Arabian Peninsula. Others point to the farthest reaches of the Israeli Negev. The most well-known of the Mount Sinais is a far-flung Monastery – St Catherine’s – identified by Christian monks and ascetics in the 6th century CE. No Jewish tradition supports the early Christian claim. However, pilgrims and tourist eager to walk in the place where God’s word is said to have been revealed to Israel appear unperturbed by the lack of historical evidence.
But is it important? Do we need to know the exact physical site or prove its historical veracity to cherish and honor the tradition and memory preserved in the tradition of Torah at Sinai?
To my understanding of Jewishness and the Jewish experience, whether Sinai can be pinpointed with the same historical exactitude that we can point to the Dizengoff House as the place where Ben Gurion proclaimed the independence of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948 has no bearing on the power of the biblical moment.
The thunder of Sinai reverberates because the Jews tell the story. For me, the power of Sinai is not about history. It is about the memory, about the wonder of a story told and retold every week, and every year from Yemen to Yonkers, from Paris to Perth in synagogues, in schools, in summer camps, and at festival dinners. For me, the power of revelation lies not in a mythic moment that is said to have occurred in the distant past, but rather in the countless retellings by Jews in vastly different times and wildly different places through a sense of shared origin and memory, and of a common present and future.
In each retelling, something is preserved. And in each retelling, something must be renewed. Preservation alone is not enough to fertilize the healthy soil of a living culture. Only if each storyteller adds something of their own meaning will the memory continue to grow. Because the storyteller, the parent, the teacher, and the tour educator need to tell the story in such a way that their listeners and students will be compelled to say this story is also mine and I want to pass it on in my own voice. Revelation only lives when relevance is brought to bear.
Relevance is derived from the Latin ‘to raise up.’ When we tell our stories and share our memories, we raise up hope. We remind ourselves that none of us are isolated ‘I’s. Each one of us is part of a family and a community. Our ancestors were able to overcome their travails and challenges, so can we. Our stories and memories provide inspiration and fuel for aspiration. If the heroes and heroines of great Jewish stories succeeded despite their foibles and faults, we can also devote ourselves anew to crossing our own deserts, splitting our own seas, and coming into our own imperfect promised lands.
If you are in synagogue on Shavuot while the Torah is being read, (or next time that you choose to be at a public Torah reading) pay attention to the person who, following the reading, is responsible to hoist high the heavy scroll so all can see before it is returned safely to the holy ark. Ask yourself, how can I also raise up Torah, to find its relevance in my life and share it with others. Judaism is not a closed cult dependent on the decisions of the ordained and initiated. All of Israel stood at Sinai and each one of us can choose to stand there again.