World of the Sages: Sinai - the sequel?

The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was perhaps the most formative event in our people's history; it was the day that we became a nation.

The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai was perhaps the most formative event in our people's history; it was the day that we became a nation. Torah is so central to our identity, so quintessential to our lives, that the day we received the Torah is unparalleled. But, could it happen again? Could there be a sequel to the Sinai experience? Or was it, perhaps, a one-time historical event, never to be duplicated, never to be repeated, only to be commemorated? With regards to Moses's words at the end of the 40-year sojourn in the desert - "Pay heed and listen, Israel, on this day you have become a nation" (Deuteronomy 27:9) - one of the sages noted: Why does Moses single out "this day" as the day of becoming a nation; in truth, the Jewish people had become a nation 40 years earlier at Sinai, as the verse indicates: "And I will take you unto Me for a nation" (Exodus 6:7)? The explanation offered reflects on the echo of Sinai: Moses's words indicate that each and every day the Torah is as dear to those who study it, as it was on the day it was given from Mount Sinai. Life is such that the excitement of events usually fade with time, becoming but distant memories; in the eternal words of Kohelet, "All things weary" (Ecclesiastes 1:8). Yet the Sinai experience does not become stale and for those who study, the Torah is as beloved as it was on the day it was first received (B. Brachot 63b). This passage does not suggest that the giving of the Torah could happen again. All it says is that our visceral affection for the Torah, our love for the tradition, remains fresh even with the passage of time. In this vein, our sages compare Torah to figs: Unlike other fruit, figs do not ripen simultaneously; rather, they ripen at staggered intervals. At any point during the fig season, juicy figs can be found on the trees. So too with Torah - whenever a person studies Torah, he can savor the taste of this pursuit (B. Eruvin 54a-b). While the succulent flavor of Torah study is an enticing image, it does not necessarily reflect a reenactment of Sinai. Yet we have other passages that seem to indicate that Sinai could - or more accurately, has already - recurred. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai once turned to one of his disciples and said: "Eliezer, tell us some Torah." The student firmly refused, claiming that he was merely a cistern that faithfully held on to water but did not produce new water of its own. The student was suggesting that he had nothing new to contribute, for all his knowledge came from his teacher. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, however, was unconvinced: "You are not like a cistern; you are like a spring that bubbles forth with water. Thus you can say Torah that was not even said to Moses at Sinai!" Understandably, he may have been trying to coax a reticent student into reaching his potential, yet when the teacher left the room and the student indeed began to teach, a Sinaitic atmosphere was palpable. Thus two other students came running to Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai: "Come and see Rabbi Eliezer, who is sitting and expounding matters that were not said to Moses at Sinai, and his face is aglow like the radiance of the sun, just as the countenance of Moses was aglow, so that it is impossible to know whether it is day or night!" (Avot D'Rabbi Natan II, 13). Could it really be that Rabbi Eliezer taught more than that which was said to Moses at Sinai? This is not the only passage that describes Rabbi Eliezer in Sinaitic terms: Rabbi Eliezer's beit midrash (study hall) had stadium seating and in the center was a rock where he would sit and teach. Rabbi Yehoshua once entered and kissed the rock, saying: "This rock is like Mount Sinai, and the one who sits on it is like the Ark of the Covenant" (Song of Songs Rabba 1:20). Ironically, Rabbi Eliezer is recorded as being insistent that he never said anything he did not hear from his predecessors (see B. Brachot 27b; B. Yoma 66b; B. Succa 27b-28a. See also M. Avot 2:5). It appears that those who were present when Rabbi Eliezer taught Torah felt that they were standing at Sinai. Drawing on an example from a different period: Rabbi Ze'ev Wolf of Zhytomir (d. 1798) described the atmosphere in the presence of one of the early hassidic masters, Rabbi Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezeritch (1710-1772): "A number of times I saw with my very own eyes - when he opened his mouth to say words of Torah, it was apparent to all that it was as if he was not in this world at all and it was the Holy Presence which spoke from his throat." This reminds us, of course, of Moses who would open his mouth and the Holy Presence would issue forth (see Exodus 19:19). In truth, one of the very blessings we make on the Torah suggests Sinai in the present: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who has chosen us from all the nations and gave us His Torah, blessed are You, God, who gives - in the present tense! - the Torah" (B. Brachot 11b). The present tense usage - "gives" - cries out: Was not the Torah given long ago at Sinai? Or perhaps there is an aspect that continues to the present. The giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai may have been a one-time occurrence, yet the Sinai experience, the lightning and thunder, the thin silence, the feeling of standing united at the foot of the mountain, is an atmosphere that we aspire to recreate and to relive each time we enter the beit midrash, each time we open the tomes of our tradition, each time we learn Torah, each time we encounter our sacred heritage. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.