This Shabbat’s Torah portion, Yitro, brings the Israelites to Sinai and the proclamation of the Decalogue. Even as biblical scholars differ regarding the location of the Sea of Reeds, they also disagree concerning the location of Mt. Sinai. The Bible offers unclear and mixed evidence regarding the itinerary of the Israelites following the Exodus.
The biblical record seems to be purposely ambivalent on the matter. Sinai is mentioned about fifteen times in the narrative portions of the Torah and another three times in poetic passages. But there seems to be a deliberate locational unspecificity. It is not the Sinaitic coordinates but the Sinaitic experience that is paramount to the biblical author. Sometimes the mountain is called Sinai; sometimes Horeb.
Even as the Torah is non-specific about the place of Moses’ burial, so it is about the actual geographic location of Sinai. What is important to mature faith is not “where” is Sinai, but “what happened” at Sinai, what were the Sinaitic consequences? Sinai is not so much a place as an event; it is not a locus of geography but a focus of spiritual history.
The Sinai event, wherever and whenever it may have happened, was looked upon as the formative moment of the people and the faith of Israel. If the Exodus meant freedom from bondage to human overlords, Sinai meant the freedom to serve the God of the Covenant. Jewish religious consciousness begins at Sinai. Torah transcends geography and time.
The ancient rabbis treat Sinai in quasi-legendary terms. The sages teach us, for example, that the mountains of the world quarreled to be selected as the mountain of revelation. The tallest demanded it should be; the most beautiful claimed that it should be chosen. Finally, the most humble and undistinguished among them, Sinai, was chosen.
According to another rabbinic tradition, Sinai was purposely designated to be outside of the boundaries of the land of Israel — so that none of the tribes might lay claim to it in exclusivity. It was in the desert, in “no person’s land” – so that all humanity would feel called to respond to its compelling voice. Finally, we are told, the voice of revelation at Sinai spoke not in Hebrew, but in 70 languages simultaneously — for all peoples to hear its call.
It is this universalism — geographic and spiritual — that is underscored in the Judaic traditions about Sinai. It is not the place of Sinai that is of consequence, but the place it holds in the hearts and in the spiritual memory of the people who went on to transmit the legacy of Sinai to the whole world.
So, the question is not “Where is Sinai?” but “Where are we heading with its legacy?” Sinai is not merely a point of departure, but a destination, our faithful appointment with the God of history.
Dr. Dennis Sasso is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, Indianapolis, IN