Experiencing Sinai.

Sinai Peninsula (brown, naturey) 521 (photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Sinai Peninsula (brown, naturey) 521
(photo credit: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Were you ever at Mount Sinai? Twice I climbed the mountain Christian tradition has identified as the mountain of Moses, visiting the Monastery of St. Catherine and gazing at a plant bearing a sign reading: “burning bush.” The climb was exhilarating and the sunrise inspiring, but there is absolutely no reason to believe I was standing in the place where Moses received the tablets of the covenant. Although many attempts have been made to identify that place, none has been convincing, and the chances of finding real evidence of its location are slim indeed.
That such a tradition once existed is evidenced by the fact that Elijah went to “the mountain of God at Horeb” when fleeing from Jezebel (I Kings 19:8). Interestingly enough, although he experienced the presence of the Lord there, it was exactly the opposite of the experience of Moses and the Israelites. Instead of fire, noise and earthquake, Elijah found the Lord in “a soft murmuring sound,” the sound of silence (I Kings 19:12). Nevertheless, the location of Mount Sinai was subsequently forgotten and never became a destination of Jewish pilgrimage.
The reason is simple: once the Tabernacle was established with the throne of God, the Ark of the Covenant, within it, Israel possessed a portable Sinai which they could take with them and which they eventually established permanently on the Mount of Zion. Zion became “the mountain of God” and was easily accessible. There was no need to return to Mount Sinai.
There is, however, an ancient tradition that states that you and I and all Jews ever born did stand at Sinai (Midrash Hagadol to Deuteronomy 29:9, B.T. Shabbat 146a). According to that midrashic tale, our souls were there when the revelation at Sinai took place, as described in Exodus 19. We were all present when God revealed Himself and spoke to all Israel. We all saw the sounds and the fire and we all replied that we would be willing to become God’s treasured people, “a holy nation and a kingdom of priests.” On Shavuot, which is fast approaching, when we hear the reading of the Torah describing that event, it is a reminder of the first time we experienced it, over 3,000 years ago.
The significance of that event cannot be overemphasized. In retelling the story, the Book of Deuteronomy records Moses saying, “The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, everyone of us who is here today. Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire” (Deuteronomy 5:2-4). Of course that is not literally true, since that generation had died out. Most of those standing with Moses some 40 years later had not yet been born. The words “the living, everyone of us who is here today” may have precipitated the midrash mentioned above that “everyone” was present then, even those not yet born.
What Moses meant is that the covenant was made not merely with those who were physically present at Sinai, but was extended to all who would come after. It was binding on the next generation and is binding on our generation as well. In the ancient midrash to Exodus, the Mekhilta, the rabbis spoke of two aspects of that covenant, “the yoke of God’s sovereignty” and “the yoke of the commandments.” At Sinai the Israelites first accepted God as their sovereign and then they accepted the laws of God upon themselves.
The Sages also interpreted the first two paragraphs of the Shema prayer, recited twice daily, as representing those two aspects.
When we recite them, we accept God’s sovereignty upon ourselves and we accept the responsibility of living according to God’s commands. So it can truly be said that we stand at Sinai again twice daily, repeating the ancient vow of our ancestors, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do” (Exodus 19:8). ■
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).