Shavuot for Jews Who Question Sinai

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Every Thursday, I gather with a group of congregants to study the “early Prophets,” Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. These are some of the Bible’s most challenging books, dealing with issues like war, genocide, rape, and other brutalities that my students did not expect to find in their holy literature. Each week, these disquieting texts spark great questions about the nature of God and the Bible. Though the questions frequently distract us from our stated course of study, they are delightful, and are a highlight of my week.

During one such conversation, I let it “slip” that I accept modern biblical scholarship, which posits that people, over the course of many centuries, composed, compiled, and ultimately edited the Bible. In this view, there was probably no single moment of revelation, at Sinai or elsewhere. Almost as soon as I finished my statement, one of my students incredulously pounced: “So, if you don’t believe that the Torah was given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, then why do you celebrate Shavuot?”

It is difficult to overstate how magnificent her question was. Traditionally, Shavuot is understood to commemorate a historical event: God giving the Torah at Sinai. So, for those of us who are uncertain about the historicity of the event or, at least, question whether the Torah was revealed in its entirety at that moment, is the entire holiday rendered meaningless?

Moved by the question, I opened a conversation with my students about Deuteronomy 29:13-14, “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

The Babylonian Talmud (Shevu’ot 39a), commenting on this opaque verse, says that all Jews were present at the Sinai encounter, including even those who had not yet been born or who were not yet Jews. For good measure, in the Midrashic collection known as Midrash Tanhuma, Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani adds “Their souls were there, even though their bodies had not yet been created.”

This idea is often understood formalistically: Revelation was an event, we were all there, and, by implication, we all agreed to the terms of the covenant and are obligated to fulfill it. But I think this beautiful tradition can also be understood through a different metaphorical lens: that the Torah is perpetually offered to every Jewish soul. As the twentieth century Hasidic luminary Rabbi Shalom Noach Berzovsky (the “Slonimer Rebbe”) suggests, “Receiving the Torah is eternal, and the Ten Commandments are unendingly spoken.” Revelation is not a moment, but continuous.

Indeed, according to the mishnaic sage Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, God calls every Jew in every single generation: “A Divine voice goes forth from Sinai every single day” (Avot 6:1). Our challenge, then, is to listen for God’s voice, to be present for its call and open to its instruction, to be always figuratively standing at the mountain so we can hear and receive.

And lest we are uncertain how to identify the call, the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Hasidic tradition, suggests that each of us hears this Divine voice whenever we experience a moment of spiritual awakening or feel a desire to better ourselves: “In the depths of the soul, as this calling knocks on one’s heart and stirs it, a Jew can hear God’s voice.”

In this sense, Shavuot is a yearly opportunity to remember that God is perpetually calling out to me. And my challenge is to know how to listen and how to respond, to show up at the mountain and answer, “Hineni, here I am.”

Finally, the idea that all Jewish souls were at Sinai can also mean an encounter with Torah is a rendezvous with eternity, an opportunity to bring past and future into the present, and a step in the direction of life everlasting. As Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik writes, “There can be no death and expiration among the company of the sages of tradition. Eternity and immorality reign here in unbounded fashion. Both past and future become, in such circumstances, ever-present realities.”

I have never met my great-great grandfather. I do not even know his name. And yet, whenever I study Torah or fulfill a mitzvah, I feel as though I am engaged in conversation with him. I know he performed those same deeds. I know he encountered those same words, laboring over their meaning and debating their significance. In this way, I timelessly inhabit my ancestors’ world. I walk with Maimonides and listen to Rabbi Akiva. And they, even after death, continue to live in my world. Similarly, my great-great grandchildren will, God-willing, get to know me, and I will get to know them. And in that way I will never die. I will live with them, and they will pass me onto their children, too.

We ritually express this idea every time we read from the Torah. We hold onto the atzei hayyim (the wooden handles of the scroll which we call the “trees of life”) and we thank God for “planting eternal life inside of us.” And when we return the Torah to the Ark, we sing that the Torah is “a tree of life for those who hold fast to her” (Prov. 3:18).

Shavuot, then, is a yearly celebration of the eternal life offered by holding fast to Torah. It is an annual opportunity to reunite at the mountain with our ancestors and our descendents; a moment that enables past, present, and future to connect; a time that ensures eternality for our ancestors and for us.

As I looked at my two wonderful students, I smiled, knowing that Sinai was alive in that room. Gathered to discuss, debate, and question the holy books of our tradition, I could hear God speaking to us, and I could sense our encounter with eternity.

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