Torah and Mount Sinai


Torah and Mount Sinai


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Mt. Sinai: A Personal Revelation

By Ozzie Nogg

In the autumn of 1968, shortly after the Six Day War, my husband and I spent three weeks traveling in Israel. Our visit was topped off (literally) with a climb up Mt. Sinai, an adventure I remember with special clarity, particularly at this season of Shavuot -- Z’Man Matan Torahteynu -- the season of the giving of our Torah.

We rode to Mt. Sinai on a Little-Egged-Bus-That-Could, lurching across the desert into the Mitla Pass, around the charred carcasses of Egyptian tanks. For several days we continued south, bouncing over wadis and through oases until finally, deep in the depths of the desert, we lumbered up to the gates of St. Catherine’s Monastery.

The monastery was built sometime in the 500s by Justinian. It is a squat, square fortress of granite blocks that boasts, in its front yard, a scruffy shrub said to be the original Burning Bush. In the monastery’s backyard is a mountain that the Bedouin call Jebal Musa -- Mountain of Moses. We call it Mt. Sinai.

The monastery was tended by a handful of Greek Orthodox monks. They fed us supper, gave us cots to sleep on, and woke us promptly at 3 a.m., the scheduled departure time for pilgrims setting out to climb Mt. Sinai. We and our Bedouin guides were due to arrive at the summit at sunrise.

Now, in all honesty, no one knows the true location of Mt. Sinai. Unlike the Mitla Pass, where abandoned tanks were verifiable witnesses to recent history, Jebal Musa presents no evidence that anything earth-shaking ever happened on its craggy heights. It is not littered with pieces of the smashed Ten Commandments. The Plain of er-Raha that stretches for miles at the foot of the mountain is not piled with chunks of the Golden Calf. But Jebal Musa at sunrise was, at least to me, positively staggering and as spiritual as it gets.

I could feel the mountain -- swathed in smoke -- vibrating with the voice of God. I could actually see the Children of Israel huddled in its looming shadow -- yawning, rubbing the sleep from their eyes -- shivering with anticipation. Now, I asked myself, had the hot, desert sun fried my brain? Had the second-hand smoke from the Bedouin’s hashish altered my perception of reality? And I decided, No. Mt. Sinai was somewhere, right? And at that moment -- in that place -- I had no doubt. This was where my ancestors had stood. Here they sealed the Covenant, said “yes” to the Ten Commandments and accepted the Torah.

By noon, we had stumbled down from Jebal Musa. Before we got back on the bus, I took another look at the shrub in the monastery’s front yard. It seemed less scruffy, somehow, and there was a glow about it. Honestly.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav wrote, “Better a superstitious believer than a rational non-believer.” Amen to that, answers one who has seen the Burning Bush. And stood with certainty on top of Mt. Sinai.

The Israelites who gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai were superstitious believers, too. They realized that something was happening on the mountain but they weren’t sure what it was. Like children, they felt no obligation to intellectualize. They simply felt. And so, they accepted the Torah without knowing what their acceptance signified. They realized, intuitively, that even things not fully understood can be full of meaning.

What a great lesson! If we apply it to our observance of Shavuot -- and to other things Jewish, for that matter -- then Mt. Sinai can be wherever we want it to be.

Even in our own backyard.


Ozzie Nogg, a freelance writer and professional storyteller, currently serves as Programming Director for Beth El Synagogue in Omaha, NE. Her father was a Lithuanian-trained rabbi from whose memory she continues to get inspiration.


from the May 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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