"We are closer to G-d when we are asking the questions, than when we think we have the answers" Heschel

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The revelation at Sinai

FNQ - thought of the week 

I will share my thoughts on the questions this week in a little bit of a different format than usual because I think the answer to each is so important. I don't claim to be much of an expert on these issues but I will try and share what I know. Each of these questions warrants a book but I am well aware that no one opened this link planning on reading a book.

  1. Many religions claim that they originated through a divine revelation, is there anything that makes the Jewish version unique?
As pointed out by Talia in her comment to my post at the beginning of the week (thank you for that) the single most important element that distinguishes our revelation from that of any other religion is that it was done in front of the entire nation. I heard in a talk from Rabbi Leib Kelemen (link- very worthwhile) that only Judaism amongst all of the worlds religions makes this claim. This is not merely a detail but an essential element of our belief in Torah. (He did admit that there is one other religion. They claim that everyone died after the mass revelation except one person who then started the religion). While I am the last person to attempt to prove anything about Judaism the fact that we claim that G-d revealed Himself to the entire Jewish people lends great credence to our claim in the Divinity of Torah. As a teacher of mine liked to say ideas may not be provable but they can be shown to be plausible. That G-d revealed Himself which is the reason why the Jewish nation follows the Torah and 2 other major religions also believe in the same G-d is to me very plausible. Any other explanation for these phenomenon is to me implausible.

  1. The Rabbis say that when the Torah was given G-d said to us either we accept Torah or die. What is the value of an experience where the receiver has no choice?
I think the lesson here is a basic one in order to understand our relationship with Torah. If G-d had given us a choice we would have been given the mistaken impression that to keep Torah is optional. The experience of Sinai had to leave us with the clear realization that either the Jewish people fully commit themselves to Torah or we, as well as all of humanity and the entire universe have no right to continue existing. There is another side to this coin as well. The Maharal explains that just as in Jewish law when a man takes a women by force he must marry her (if she agrees) and is then never allowed to divorce her so too since G-d forced us to accept the Torah He took us on as a permanent bride and He too can never divorce us.

  1. After witnessing the miracles of the Exodus why did the Jewish people need the Sinai experience, didn't they already believe in G-d?
I think there is a powerful message here. We did believe in G-d. How could we not after what we saw in Egypt. I don't think that the main purpose of the revelation was to instill within us a belief in G-d but rather to connect one's belief in G-d with the obligation one has to follow G-d's Torah and seek out moral refinement. The great challenge of Sinai was to see whether a person's clarity in their awareness of and belief in G-d can will cause them to commit to a life dedicated to the achievement of spiritual perfection.

  1. If the Jewish peopled committed such a grave sin (Golden Calf) so soon after receiving the Torah does that mean that the experience was essentially a failure?
The answer to this flows very nicely from the previous question. In a certain sense the sin of the golden calf showed that the experience of Sinai was a terrible failure. If we could do such a grave sin after such a revelation one could conclude that the revelation must have been meaningless. But I think the opposite is true. Even after revelation G-d left us with free choice. As I said above the challenge was to apply the experience of Sinai to daily life when G-d doesn't appear to us. The sin showed that even after revelation we still have an incredibly challenging task to apply that experience and make morally correct choices.

  1. If every Jewish soul was at Sinai why do we need to recreate that event every year on Shavuot?
We were all there and we did all experience the clarity of the existence of G-d which is forever embossed into our identity and national DNA. However, that experience wore off. The connection between belief and action is a shaky one. Every year we need to remind ourselves that our belief in G-d, however strong it may be, will always be defined by our commitment His Torah and the way in which we live our lives. Every year we need to celebrate Shavuot and re-receive the Torah so that no on think that in Judaism it is enough to believe in G-d and remain ambivalent towards His Torah.

What do you think?

Binyamin – always looking for a good question.

1 comment:

  1. "After witnessing the miracles of the Exodus why did the Jewish people need the Sinai experience, didn't they already believe in G-d?"

    Yitziat Mitzrayim represented our physical freedom, whereas Har Sinai was for our spiritual independence. Even then we could not appreciate this gift fully as evidenced by the Chait Ha Egel so soon after. Hence, what we witnessed in Mitzrayim had limited impact on our emunah/bitachon and took a very long time after to synthesize fully. Had we not experienced Sinai we would most likely have fallen backward into a lower state of Tumah. Afterall, if so soon after HAr Sinai bnei yisrael committed the ultimate Avodah Zorah, kal v'chomer what might have been if only left with the memories of Yitziat Mitzrayim to secure their emunah and Avodat Hashem.