What Happened at Sinai? Some Thoughts on Shavuot.

| holidays, meditations, musings |

Last night Rabbi Ellen Lippman led a beautiful teaching on “What Happened at Sinai?” I’ve heard the idea before that everyone who has and will ever exist were there for the receiving of the Torah, revelation, “Rabbi Isaac said: At Mount Sinai the prophets of each and every generation received what they were to prophesy… even though they did not yet exist, each one received a share of the Torah… each and every one of them also received at Sinai the wisdom he or she was to utter” (Exodus Rabbah 28:6). What I had never really contemplated was how it must have felt. How it does feel, each year, when we receive the Torah. Rabbi Lippman went through different texts, exploring what each of our experiences are at Sinai. We started with the thunder and lightening version:

On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Eternal had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.” (Exodus 19:16-19)

This is the movie version- exciting, loud, sort of violent. One of the participants at the teaching said that she related to this, that she feels most at home in this sort of chaotic, thunderstorm experience. Others commented that this just sounds scary, frightening, booming. We then read the next text:

Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, not one of the ofanim [wheel angels, as in Ezekial’s vision of the chariot] stirred a wing, not one of the seraphim [another kind of angel] said, “Holy, holy, holy!” The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak – the whole world was hushed into breathless silence. It was then the voice went forth: “I am Adonai your God.” (Exodus Rabbah 29:9)

After we read this and sat silently for a few minutes, I kept thinking about how these two texts are interwoven. That within a loud storm, there is a silence. And within deep quiet, there is a thundering. Rabbi Lippman talked afterwards about the “eye of the storm,” and that’s exactly what this felt like to me. There is a charge to the air, there is a multitude of sound and feeling in each moment. We’re all worked up to receive. It’s dramatic, and it feels so real. Here we are, again, at Mount Sinai. We have to make space to receive what we already have, what we already have been given. It’s a total paradox, confusing, messy, but it’s also just the way things are.

We ended the evening with two other texts- moving, or ascending, from a cacophony of sound, an absence, looking at the words that God said, “I am Yud-Hay-Vav-Hay,” staying with just the first letter (of “anochi” or “I am”) of Aleph, and then to just our breath:

God spoke only the first letter of the word. That letter, aleph, is by itself silent. God speaks only the great silence; the divine is a silent womb that contains all language within it… All God says is that which cannot be spoken, the pronouncement of the unpronounceable word. But this word is overflowing with the energy of Being.” (Rabbi Arthur Green, in Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology)


The pause between our in-breath and out-breath is a place of stillness where we experience simply being, or in the state of I Am.” (Sheldon Lewis, Jewish meditation teacher extraordinaire)

As we prepare for revelation on Shavuot next week, take a few seconds to just be with that stillness. Breathe in and pause as you transition to an exhale. Feel that emptiness in between the breath. Breath out and pause before inhaling. Feel the space created that allows you to receive. As you take a few breaths, spend time playing within those pauses. Noticing the transition between in-breath and out-breath, feeling alive, “overflowing with the energy of Being.”

Also, Shabbat Shalom!