The legacy of Sinai

What effect has receiving the Torah had on us, as individuals or as a group? What was God's purpose?

torah scroll 88 248 (photo credit: courtesy)
torah scroll 88 248
(photo credit: courtesy)
After the holiday hype is over, what remains? What effect has receiving the Torah had on us, as individuals or as a group? What was God's purpose? What happened at Sinai is by definition indescribable, as the ineffable must be, yet the description of the event distinguishes between those who were there and those who were not. How does one recognize one who was there? After the revelation it is written: "And the people said to Moses: 'Speak thou to us and we shall hear, and let not God speak to us lest we die.' Moses said to the people: 'Do not fear, for in order to try [literally, raise] you, God has come, in order that His fear be on your faces that you do not sin'" (Exodus 20-16,17). Moses' response is surprising not only for positing two reasons for God's coming, but in its very structure. "Do not fear… God has come that His fear be on your faces." This is like the way one comforts fearful children by telling them tales of the Brothers Grimm - thus justifying their fears, giving their terrors a place. Moses says to the people that indeed their fears are justified, for God has come to put His fear into them. The Talmud narrates that the people swooned at hearing God. And so afterwards they fear that more exposure to God's voice will entice them out of their bodies, so blissful is the heavenly music. Moses responds: Be not afraid - God has come to make you afraid. And still the logic seems faulty, and its very structure reminds us of Caliban's words in Shakespeare's The Tempest: "Be not afraid, the isle is full of noises, Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. Sometimes a thousand twanging instruments Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices, That if I then had waked after long sleep, Would make me sleep again; and then in dreaming, The clouds methought would open, and shew riches Ready to drop upon me: when I wak'd, I cried to dream again." Hearing even a single note of Godly music can make people stop appreciating human voices, for they know that nothing can ever compare. One is left with the shame of being merely mortal. Thus Adam and Eve, after they "hear the Voice of God going in the garden (Genesis 3)" run to hide. They are ashamed, for they lost their passion when they heard the voice of true Love. It is this shame that is our legacy from Sinai. For our teachers taught: "Whosoever is bashful - his fathers stood at Sinai, while he who has no shame - his forefathers were not there (Nedarim 20)." Meaning to say - he himself has never "been there"; he knows nothing but the mortal. Neither he nor his ancestors have ever known what it is to perceive the Divine Light. Sadly, such people feel they must forgive children for being enraptured with seemingly small things, and if an adult expresses excitement or wonder it is taken as a sign of inner poverty. Such a person is not deemed bad, simply spiritually impoverished. "Standing at Sinai" is obviously not to be understood literally, for none of us could have literally been there, but it is a metaphor for having had a glimpse of eternity, boundless love or selfless care. These can be recognized only in hindsight, when one will "cry to dream again." And be ashamed. Shame denotes a state of separation from a self we know could be ours, and from which we are detached and know not how to regain. We need not have done anything wrong; we simply know that what we are doing is far poorer than we are capable of. One is literally ashamed of one's self. The sages teach that before a rise comes a fall, and we can see this maxim at work here. The shame of distance, of separation creates an insatiability in our souls, a yearning for a return to the divine, for another taste, another glimpse of the ultimate, however "impossible." This is our tzelem elohim, a reflection of the infinite God whom one can never find, but must always search for. Thus those who claim to have found God or Truth, who are satisfied with themselves, have lost this Godly soul, just as someone fully satisfied with less than the ultimate has no Sinai in their soul. This shame is a terrible thing to live with, but more unfortunate is one who doesn't have it, for it is a sign that "In the depths of their heart there is nothing." The writer, a rabbi, is director of the Yakar Study Center in Tel Aviv.