According to rabbinic tradition, Shavuot – the Festival of ‘Weeks’ – is z’man matan Torateinu: ‘the season of the giving of our Torah.’ After the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, the rabbis reinvented a feast that was purely agricultural in nature – Yom Ha-bikkurim, ‘The Day of First Fruits’ (Numbers 28:26) – and transformed it into the celebration of the Revelation of God at Mount Sinai. Without this radical transformation, Shavuot would have disappeared from the festival calendar. Nevertheless, the rabbis’ inventiveness was rooted in the narrative of the Exodus: the seven weeks from Pesach to Shavuot (Leviticus 23:15ff.) is mirrored by the journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai. As we read in parashat Yitro, at Exodus chapter 19: ‘In the third month after the Israelites went out of the land of the Egypt, the same day they came into the wilderness of Sinai.’
So, the narrative in Exodus chapters 19 and 20 relates that the Eternal One spoke to the ex-slaves in the ‘wilderness’ – that is what is meant by ‘Revelation’: God did not simply appear; the Eternal One also spoke. The Hebrew word for wilderness, midbar, is connected to the Hebrew root, Dalet Beit Reish, to ‘speak’. A familiar noun, also based on this root, is davar, meaning ‘word’ – and also, ‘thing’: The wilderness or, more precisely, the desert is a barren, empty place – devoid of words and of things. Interestingly, the same consonants that make up midbar, can also form another word – if you substitute the vowels: mi-davar, which means, literally, ‘from a word’ – or ‘from a thing’. As we read in the opening verses of the Torah: God spoke the world into existence out of tohu va-vohu – ‘formlessness and void’ (Genesis 1:2ff.).
From a sociological perspective, the desert is tohu va-vohu – a place devoid of human habitation: settlements, villages, towns and cities. So, in a sense we could say that the Eternal One spoke a people into existence out of the wilderness. Who were those who stood at the foot of the trembling mountain? They were a rag-taggle mass of ex-slaves – including both the Israelites and the erev rav, the ‘mixed multitude’ (Exodus 12:38) – still blinking into the light of the new dawn of freedom; a chaotic mob, without form or structure, purpose or direction. In other words, they were a human wilderness
It sounds quite romantic doesn’t it? The Eternal One speaking a people, our people, into existence out of the wilderness that was the raw material of their lives, and out of the wilderness that surrounded them – just as, according to the Torah, at the beginning of time, God had spoken the world into existence. But if we examine the Torah, we can see that the two narratives are not exactly parallel: the creation of the world was an act of supreme, singular Divine will; the mob became a people only when they responded to the Eternal with their own unified utterance: na’aseh v’nishma – ‘We will do and we will listen’ (Exodus 24:7). The Eternal One was not alone in that moment. The people listened – and then they made a commitment: we will act, and we will continue to listen.
This is truly remarkable. The Eternal One might have bellowed and thundered and roared on the mountain, and the rabble might have kept silent – either out of terror and fear, or, possibly, indifference. After all, hadn’t they been essentially unmoved by the plagues? Hadn’t the experience of persecution and oppression deadened their senses? Could it be that after generations of servitude, they were open to the possibility of a new way and a new life? Wasn’t it much more likely that having, finally, been ‘driven out’ of Egypt (Exodus 12:39), ‘sent away’ by an exhausted and exasperated Pharaoh, as the Torah tells us at the beginning of parashat B’shallach (Exodus 13:17), the ex-slaves were cynical and dismissive, interested solely in where the next meal was coming from? Isn’t that, indeed, what we read in the text, straight after their dramatic passage through the divided Sea of Reeds – that no sooner had they arrived at the next stopping place, they were complaining about the lack of water? (Ex. 16:22ff.). But before we get too critical about the behaviour of the ex-slaves and their apparent lack of gratitude about being liberated, maybe we should think about how we might react in similar circumstances…
So, the real miracle was not that the Eternal One spoke – how do we know that God is not speaking to us all the time? The real miracle was that the rabble at the foot of the mountain listened. What we should really be celebrating today is not that God declaimed on Mount Sinai, but rather that it was there in the midst of the desert that a motley crew of ex-slaves listened, and acknowledged that the Eternal was addressing them.
If we realised, really recognised that that is what we should be celebrating, we wouldn’t be able to avoid the implications for us. As we commemorate the anniversary of the moment when that our ancestors listened to the voice of the Eternal One, we can’t really avoid an insistent question: are we listening out for that voice? They had good reasons for being deadened or indifferent – but nevertheless, they did listen. What about us? If we fail to listen, what’s our excuse?
Of course, the ex-slaves didn’t hear the voice of the Eternal until they were in the desert, far away from Egypt, and the bondage they had endured for generations. Do we need to go into the desert, too? Do we need to get away from it all – away from our daily demands and everyday concerns – to have the space to listen and notice? These are real questions. After all, it wasn’t just the ex-slaves, who discovered the Eternal in the wilderness. Think about Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant and the mother of Abraham’s first-born son, Ishmael, who encountered a messenger of the Eternal in the desert, not once, but twice – and received the Divine promise for her son and future generations that transformed her plight (Genesis chapters 16 and 21). Think about Jacob, in flight, bedding down as the sun set, a stone for a pillow, exclaiming the following morning: ‘Surely, the Eternal One was in this place and I didn’t know it!’ (Genesis 28:16). Think about Moses, leading his father-in-law’s flock, achar ha-midbar, ‘behind the wilderness’, turning aside to notice that lowly bush, burning, and yet not consumed; and hearing a voice speaking to him (Exodus 3:3)
As I pointed out a few moments ago, the word, midbar, might be read, by substituting the vowels, as mi-davar – ‘from a word’ – or ‘thing’. And the consonants also invite another set of vowels, which create yet another word, a verbal form of the same root, Dalet Beit Reish: m’dabbeir, which means, ‘speaking’: In the midbar, a place devoid of words and things, nevertheless, the voice of the Eternal m’dabbeir, ‘speaking’. So, midbar a barren, empty place, where the voice of the Eternal is free to resound, unmuffled by the incessant noise of human affairs.
Of course, there is a well-established tradition, in all the world faiths, of mystics going into the wilderness to commune with God – leaving organised society behind and becoming hermits, in order give their full attention to the Eternal. But this is not a path that is realistically available to most people. So what about us? If we go along with the proposition that the Eternal is addressing us here and now, but most people are too caught up in the noisy, busy, cluttered societies we inhabit to hear, and too distracted and preoccupied to notice, is there anything we can do to enable ourselves to listen in the midst of our hectic lives?
I think that there are some simple answers to this question. One of those answers is Shabbat, the weekly opportunity to step outside of the daily round, pause, rest and reflect. Of course, it’s rarely possible for most people to set aside a whole day, but a few moments fully experienced can make all the difference: like participating in the Shabbat services, where, in between the words of the liturgy, and particularly when we raise our voices in song, we may sense the voice of the Eternal – whatever sense we make of ‘the Eternal’ – speaking to us. Another answer may be found in the festivals, which punctuate the year, and remind us of our story as a people, and challenge us to connect that story to our own lives. And then there are all the other practices which define Jewish life – including, kashrut, the dietary regulations, correcting economic injustice, by giving tz’dakah to those in need, g’milut chasadim, acts of loving kindness, such as visiting those who are ill. Perhaps, some Jews carry out these practices, simply because, according to tradition, God has commanded us to do so. But, perhaps, other Jews, might think about these distinctly Jewish acts, as ways of punctuating our lives, of interrupting the endless flow, like punctuation in a piece of text, to create sense and meaning, and to enable us to listen in the pauses between activities.
The simplest example, by far, of such Jewish punctuation, is saying a b’rachah, a blessing. There are the traditional blessings of course – and there is a tradition of reciting at least 100 blessing each day. But what I’m suggesting is not so much that we get into the habit of reciting lots of blessings, more that we might enter the spirit of pausing to bless, to give thanks, to acknowledge: the meal we are about to eat, the scent of a rose, the view of the horizon, the new shirt we can’t wait to put on. It’s when we pause and acknowledge what we are about to do, or what lies before us, just at that moment, that we may be aware, not only of being in the moment, but also sense something transcendent beyond the moment that apprehends us – yes, even in the feeling of a new garment on our skin.
So, here we are now in this moment – in this Shavuot morning service. In a short while we will read the Torah. It’s an obvious point, but we will not read the Torah silently, we will read it out loud; so, we will not simply read Aseret Ha-dibrot – ‘the Ten Utterances’, best known as the Ten Commandments – we will hear them. The Hebrew root for ‘reading’, Kuf Reish Alef, also means, ‘calling’. The congregation will stand and I will call out the words, and we will all listen. In this way, we will remind ourselves of our ancestors standing at the foot of that quaking mountain. But, hopefully we will do more than remind ourselves of their experience. Hopefully, in the moment that we stand and listen, we will also discover that we are really listening – both to those ancient words, and to the voice of the Eternal, breaking into our lives here and now – challenging us to respond. Kein y’hi ratzon – May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
8th June 2011 – 6th Sivan 5771
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut