What was it like at Mount Sinai when the Torah was Given?

        May 2008    
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Revelation at Sinai

By Mendel Weinberger

Every year at this time I try to prepare myself for the holiday of Shavuot but I just can't seem to get a handle on it. I know that this holiday marks the completion of the counting of the omer that began after Passover and that it corresponds to the day the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai.

We stay up all night saying the tikun and eat cheesecake the next day. But what is the real content of the day? It's all very vague to me. And there is no physical object to focus on like on the other holidays. On Passover we eat matzah, on Rosh Hashanah blow the shofar, and on Succot we wave the four species and dwell in the Succah. On Yom Kippur we fast, on Chanuka we light candles, and on Purim we hear the reading of the Megillah.

But on Shavuot there is no symbol to focus on, no special mitzvah that we do.

In Israel Shavuot is only one day and it goes by so fast. Most people seem relieved to get it over with so they can start listening to music again and attending weddings. I asked myself, 'what is the Torah'. Is it the story of creation and the birth of the Nation of Israel? Yes, it is. Is it the book of the law, enumerating all the commandments we are meant to fulfill? Yes, it is. Is it the secrets of Kabala? Yes, it is.

But the question that still plagued me was, what is the essence of the Torah. What is the point upon which everything else is built?'

As usual when I come up against a wall in my understanding, I called Uri. He was vacationing up north in the Golan Heights and invited me to join him. I jumped at the chance and told my wife I needed a couple of days off to relieve the stress of working on the book I was writing about Jews who resisted the Nazis during the Holocaust. She reluctantly agreed on the condition that she gets two days at the Dead Sea to soak in the mineral spas. I agree and left the next day.

The ride up north in the springtime is beautiful. The flowers and trees are in bloom and everything is green. The bus followed Route 6 as far as Hadera and then turned northeast towards Tiberias. Then we skirted around the Kinneret and started the climb up to the Golan plateau.

When I saw the black volcanic rocks that are the signature of this part of Israel, I felt inspired. Here I could think my own thoughts without being interrupted by the muezzin, the Islam call to prayer because no Moslems live here, only Jews and a few Druze Arabs. The sky is big here with only the majestic Mt. Hermon to break the horizon.

When the bus stopped at Moshav Avnei Eitan I got off and headed for the guest house. I found Uri sitting by the side of the pool drinking lemonade. He smiled when he saw me and invited me to sit down in the

chair next to him. I dropped my bag, took off my jacket, and sat down. He ordered me lemonade and we made small talk for a few minutes. He had left his family back in Jerusalem for a few days so I didn't feel I was intruding. We soon got to the purpose of my visit and I told him all the questions that were bothering me. He sat silently for a few minutes and then turned to face me.

"So what's bothering you is that even after learning the Torah for the last 25 years, you still don't know what it is. And you don't know what we are celebrating when we commemorate the giving of the Torah on Shavuot. Don't you feel a little foolish to have missed such an important point of understanding?"

"Yes, I do," I answered. "But don't get me wrong. I understand that G-d revealed Himself to the Nation of Israel on Mt. Sinai over 3,000 years ago and because of that I am committed to keeping all the laws written in the Torah. I just don't feel so excited about it anymore. It seems the Torah life has become so habitual that the profundity of it has faded away."

"Did you pray the morning service today?" Uri asked me.

"Of course," I said.

"Well, at the end of the service there are six things we are commanded to remember everyday. The first one is to remember the day you left Egypt. The second one is to remember what you saw on the day you stood before G-d at Horev (Mt. Sinai). Did you say it?"

"Yes, I say it every day."

"And did you remember"

"I told you I remembered to say it."

"Listen to me Shmuel. The verse says to remember what you saw at Horev. Just saying it isn't enough. What G-d wants us to do is to remember the experience of Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai. If we really do that then our relationship to G-d and to the Torah is completely different. It is not one of believing but of knowing."

"But how can I remember something that didn't happen in my lifetime?" I said. "The only way I know that the Torah was given on Mt. Sinai is because I read about it in the Torah itself."

"You can remember because your soul was there at Mt. Sinai. And even if you don't think you can, it's only because that memory is buried deep in your unconscious mind. It is the reason you have such a strong faith in G-d."

"You've got me interested now, Uri. I bet you've got the key to unlocking the unconscious mind if I'm ready to follow you."

Uri looked at me and smiled. "We will do it tomorrow morning, Rosh Chodesh Sivan, an auspicious time for soul travel."

I spent the rest of the day relaxing and preparing myself for the next day's adventure. In the late afternoon I took a swim in the pool and worked up a sweat in the sauna. Late in the afternoon, Uri and I went to the moshav synagogue to pray the afternoon and evening prayers. Then we found the dining room and ate dinner. After the meal Uri turned to me with a serious expression on his face.

"The experience at Mt. Sinai is referred to by two different expressions. In the holiday prayers it is called zman matan Toratainu – the time of the giving of the Torah and the sages refer to it as kabalat hatorah – receiving the Torah. From G-d's perspective, He is giving us a precious gift – His law, His wisdom, His very Being contracted into the letters and words of the Torah. From our perspective, we are the recipients of this gift. In order to receive the Torah, you must empty yourself and become a strong vessel to contain what is being given. That means to nullify your opinions and assumptions about what the Torah is, what G-d is, and who you are. The real secrets of the Torah are revealed only to those who can do this."

Uri stopped speaking for a moment, rested his chin on his hand, and looked at me. It was a deep, penetrating gaze that bore right into my inner being. I felt he could see into me and I was embarrassed at some of the thoughts I had been indulging in lately. I nodded in confirming my willingness to empty myself.

"Tomorrow we will travel in the fourth dimension to Mt. Sinai at the time of the giving of the Torah. To prepare yourself for this, before you fall asleep tonight, close your eyes and travel back in your mind to your earliest childhood memory. Picture it as vividly as you can and try to feel what it was like to be that little boy, who was so open to life, so curious and innocent. Fix that memory in your psyche for that is the attitude you will need on this journey."

Uri looked at me again and I nodded. There was nothing left to say except goodnight and we parted ways. I went to my room and thought about what Uri had said to me. I realized I had become cynical lately and had given up on making any effort to shift my attitude. I resolved to change that. I got into my night clothes, said the blessings before retiring and the Shma Yisroel prayer, and lay down on my bed. I closed my eyes and thought back to my childhood. I remembered the house I grew up in, my parents, sister and brother, and my friends. I remembered riding my bike to the candy store, catching fireflies in a jar, and playing giant step in the backyard. And then I recalled a moment that stood out from the others as an important moment. I must have been about seven years old. It was fairly late at night and I was lying on the grass in the backyard staring at the stars. I was thinking to myself, what is at the end of the universe? After the last star or planet, what's next? Nothing?

What is nothing? Or maybe the universe goes on forever without ever ending. I connected to that little boy who was so inquisitive, so open to know the secrets of the universe. I smiled to myself and drifted off the sleep.

The sun peeked through the window of my room and struck my face. I opened my eyes and looked at my watch. It was 6:30 am. I had arranged to meet Uri at quarter to seven by the swimming pool so I quickly got dressed and walked over there with my talis and tefillin under my arm and a towel to dry off with. He was waiting for me and told me we both needed to immerse in the pool like a mikve in order to begin the journey in a state of purity. There was no one around so we stripped off our clothes and jumped in the water. After submerging my body ten times, the number of completion according to kabalah, I climbed out of the pool, dried off, and got dressed. Uri stayed underwater on the last immersion for a long time and I was beginning to worry about him when his face broke the surface of the water smiling from ear to ear. He climbed out of the water and quickly got dressed.

While we were walking over to the synagogue I asked him why he was so happy. He told me he had seen the face of Moshe Rabenu while he was underwater and that was a sign we were welcome to meet him at Mt. Sinai. Well Uri never ceases to surprise me so I smiled too and we went off the pray the morning service. After the prayers we ate a quick breakfast and then Uri told me to wait in the parking lot while he went up to his room. He came back with a plastic bag and walked over to a white Toyota parked under a tree. He told me to get in and he sat down on the driver's side and started the car. We took off and drove north for about ten kilometers. Just past moshav Yonatan he turned on to a dirt track and continued another kilometer until the end of the road. He reached over to the back seat and grabbed the plastic bag. He took out what looked like two white robes and told me to take off my clothes and change into mine. Then he gave me a white keffiah to put on my head. I knew the reason. If we were going to travel to Mt. Sinai we had to look the part of a son of Israel at that time. We got out of the car, changed clothes, and Uri led me down a narrow path. At the end of the path was a huge stone wall with an opening big enough for a man to crawl through at the bottom. Uri took out a small flashlight and turned to face me.

"This cavern will lead us through the fourth dimension to the Sinai Desert," Uri said. This must be your intention as you crawl through it. Get in touch with the spirit of that little boy you remembered last night and let him guide you."

After we crawled through the entrance, the cave opened up to become a high ceiling-ed cavern. I could hear the sound of water flowing in the distance. Uri seemed to know the way and I followed close behind him. Gradually the ceiling became lower and the walls on either side of us closed in. I had to bend over to pass through and when that became impossible I got down on my hands and knees and crawled carefully over the rocky floor. Then the passage narrowed even more and I had to squeeze myself through the damp stones. I watched Uri push himself through a particularly tight place and then I lost sight of him. I couldn't see the light anymore and started to panic. I called out to him and told him I couldn't see the way forward. He told me to feel my way. I put my hands up to the ceiling and realized the only way through was to lie on my belly and inch my way using only my forearms and feet. The going was slow but steady. The passage became even narrower and turned to the left. I pushed my head and shoulders through but a protruding stone prevented me from going any further. My hips were wedged in. I struggled in vain for a few minutes unable to move either forward or backward.

"I'm stuck!" I called out to Uri. "I can't move at all. What should I do?"

A voice in the distance shouted, "Take a deep breath and exhale all the air from your lungs forcefully. Then pull yourself through."

I did as Uri suggested and was able to move an inch forward. I tried again and moved another inch. Now the stone was sticking in my side making it hard to breathe. I felt weak and discouraged.

"I can't go on, Uri," I said. "It's no use trying."

I didn't hear a response for a minute but I did hear some movement coming towards me. Then I heard Uri's voice very close to me.

"You are now in a place of constriction and you don't see the way out. In order to release yourself, you will need to make yourself small. Think back to that memory of yourself as a little boy gazing at the stars. Become him and you will find your path forward."

I was breathing heavily, feeling the pain of my situation. I pictured myself as that little boy, longing to understand life and feeling so small in relation to the endless universe. I relaxed into that magical feeling.

Uri's voice came out of the darkness. "Now pull yourself through," he said.

I reached out and grabbed hold of an outcropping of rock and pulled. My body slid through the passage without much effort at all and I saw Uri's light and then his beaming face waiting for me. He gave me a bottle of water which I drank from thirstily. We sat together for a few minutes resting and gathering strength for the remainder of the journey.

Uri then turned to me and said, "You have passed the first test on the way to Sinai. I'm proud of you."

I looked back at him and smiled. If that was the first test, I thought, what will the next one be?

From then on the path through the cave became wider and the ceiling gradually higher. Soon we could walk upright and as I looked forward, I saw a light in the distance. I felt excited and a little afraid of what lay ahead but we kept going and the light became bigger and brighter. As the light filled the cave, Uri turned off his flashlight and we walked easily over the smooth stone floor. We reached the mouth of the cavern and I peered out into the bright sunshine. My eyes were temporarily blinded by the light but as they adjusted I saw we were at the edge of a vast desert.

Uri led the way and I adjusted my gait to accommodate the soft sand underfoot. There was no one else around and the landscape was flat except for three mountain peaks I could see in the distance. The air was dry and extremely hot. We continued walking for about half an hour and moved closer to the three mountains. Soon I could see that there were people there, a lot of people. When we were about 100 meters from the crowd Uri stopped and turned to look at me. He offered me another drink of water which I gratefully accepted. Then he began to speak.

"The mountain in the center is Mt. Sinai," he said. "The people surrounding it are the Twelve Tribes of Israel. They are standing ready to receive the Torah and we are going to stand with them. It is imperative that you now leave behind your individual self and merge with what is called in the Torah 'kol adat bnei Yisrael' –the entire congregation of Israel. Any ill feeling you have towards another Jew will prevent you from doing this. Take a moment and make this your intention before we join our brothers and sisters under the mountain."

I checked my mind and realized that in my everyday life there were many people I negated because maybe they didn't dress like me or observe the Torah the same way I do. I felt the wall of separation between me and my fellow Jews and resolved in myself to destroy it. I closed my eyes and pictured a stone wall representing my judgments against people and willed it to slowly sink into the sand. I opened my eyes and Uri nodded at me and motioned with his head that it was time to go. We walked towards the crowd and soon were swallowed up in the swell of humanity that was the nascent Nation of Israel. Uri led me though the throng until we reached the foot of the mountain.

I saw six men standing apart from the others talking among themselves. Uri left me and walked over to them. He started a conversation with a distinguished looking elderly man with a long white beard. A minute later he motioned for me to come over to them. I felt extremely nervous and bashful as I slowly walked over. The old man Uri had been talking to was looking straight at me. I stood before him but was afraid to meet his gaze. Uri whispered in my ear that this man was Moshe Rabbenu and that he wanted to bless me. I looked up at him and was greeted by eyes that were both kind and otherworldly. I felt he was looking deep into me, seeing who I really was. He smiled and placed his hands on my head and began speaking in a deep resonant voice, "Misheberach avotainu Avraham, Yitzchak, veYaakov" As he recited the ancient blessing I closed my eyes and felt a light filling up my head burning out all the superfluous thoughts, all the needless worry, and all the negative judgments I was holding. It was as if a heavy burden was being lifted off of me. When he finished blessing me, Moshe took his hands away and I opened my eyes and met his gaze once again. The embarrassment was gone. I felt loved. Uri put his hand on my shoulder and gently led me away. The group of men who I assumed to be Moshe, Aharon, and Aharon's sons began to climb up the mountain. Though they were not young men they climbed with alacrity and surefootedness. About a third of the way up the slope Aharon and his sons stopped. Moshe continued climbing until he disappeared into the cloud that covered the mountaintop.

The sky became dark and a thick fog descended on all of us standing below. A bolt of lightning flashed across the sky followed by the crash of thunder. I shook with fear knowing what was coming next. Another flash of lightning was followed by and even louder thunderclap. I looked for Uri but couldn't see him or anyone else around me. The third time the lightning and thunder struck they seemed to blend together into a sensation of such power that I felt panic and wanted to run. From out of the darkness I heard Uri's voice telling me to keep calm and stay in my place. I felt my breath expand in my chest and my heart beating hard. Then a sound reached my ears like the sound of a shofar. It was quiet at first but gradually became louder and louder. The vibration of the sound resonated within me filling me up with something that was at the same time powerful and holy. I surrendered myself into that sound and became one with it. When it stopped I felt ready to receive G-d's revelation.

What happened next is hard for me to describe. There was light and there was a voice speaking. And the words spoken were the Ten Commandments. But at the same time it the words seem to emanate from within me at well as from outside of me. In fact I didn't feel myself at all. I felt my soul leave my body and merge with the great light that was radiating from Mt. Sinai. There was a knowing and a seeing that G-d is the Creator and Ruler of the universe. This was a truth that was absolutely clear like the palm of my hand. And there was a feeling that I needed to acknowledge that truth and commit myself to serve the Creator. I did so with an affirmation of my entire being. I can't tell how long this revelation lasted because there was no sensation of time passing.

Gradually I felt myself back in my body with my feet on the ground. The sky lit up and the fog lifted. I looked at the millions of people around me and saw a radiance hovering over them. Uri was standing next to me smiling and enjoying the afterglow of the great event we had just experienced. He turned to me and told me it was time to go. I followed him through the crowd until we reached the open desert. We walked in silence until we arrived at the mouth of the cave. Uri led me on a different path though the cavern that was much easier and quicker and soon we found ourselves at the other end where the car was parked. We changed back into our street clothes and drove back to the guest house at Moshav Avnei Eitan. I didn't feel much like talking and neither did Uri so we traveled in silence.

When we got back to the moshav I went to my room, lay down on my bed, and fell into a deep sleep. I was awakened a couple of hours later by a knocking on my door. It was Uri. He said I had to get up for soon it would be time to go to the synagogue for the mincha service. I got up, took a quick shower, and met Uri by the entrance to the swimming pool. While we were walking over to the synagogue, Uri turned to me and said, "Do you now have a better handle on the holiday of Shavuot?"

"I don't think I have a handle on it, because there really is nothing to hold onto," I answered. "What I experienced there was beyond words. It affected me deeply and removed any doubts I may have had about the truth of G-d's existence or His providence over the world. My faith and commitment are much stronger now."

Uri smiled and nodded in agreement. We continued in silence until we reached the synagogue. The chazzan was just beginning to say Ashrei. I joined in with the congregation. The chazzan said kaddish and then we all stepped back three steps and then forward. When I started to say the first blessing 'Blessed are you L-rd our G-d, and G-d of our fathers…' tears filled my eyes and I felt G-d's Divine Presence hovering over me. It was enough.


from the May 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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