From the Heart of Heaven – Reflections on the Sinai Experience II
The 3rd Month of Sivan
Matan Torah – The Giving of the Torah Part One
Part of an Ongoing Series entitled Hidden Sparks beneath the Surface
By Elisheva Tavor aka Betty Tabor
Having celebrated Passover and the deliverance from Egyptian bondage we are fast approaching the close of the seven week period of counting the omer as mandated by Torah in Leviticus 23:15-16, and find ourselves preparing for the Festival of Shavuot meaning “weeks.”
Background-from the Torah and Traditions
The Festival of Shavuot is related to the celebration of the wheat harvest and the ripening of the first fruits; thus it has two other biblical names…Yom Habikurim or the “Day of the First Fruits,” and Chag HaKatzir, the “Harvest Festival.” Shavuot, along with Sukkot and The Feast of Unleavened Bread following Pesach was one of the three mandatory Pilgrim Festivals or Regalim (literally translated Foot Festivals) held in Jerusalem each year (Deut. 16:16).
Shavuot also means “oaths,” for according to Jewish tradition it was on this day approximately 3333 hundred years ago that HaShem made a covenant with His people. The Jewish sages have compared it to a wedding, with the Torah being the ketubah or marriage contract, between HaShem and His people…and what an awesome wedding it was!
The Sinai Experience
This event is the single most remarkable awe-inspiring happening in the history of mankind…when HaShem the G-D of all Creation, YHVH (Hebrew, Yud Hey Vav Hey), descended upon Mt Sinai, and amidst the fire and smoke, the darkness, thunder and lightning, spoke to His people panim b’panim, “face to face, out of the midst of the fire”(Deut. 5:4), and called them into covenant relationship with Him!
How can we even fathom such an awesome event…one whose very description takes our breath away? How can we bring it into our day and time? Beyond the written page, we ask ourselves, what meaning does it have for us? As we attempt to draw it down and internalize it into our lives, we must first try to go back in time and put ourselves there…in the wilderness at Sinai.
We read in Deuteronomy 4:10-11 how the people were told to gather together at Mount Sinai to hear the words of their G-d, learn to fear Him, and teach these words to their children, dor v’ dor, and to pass them on from generation to generation. If we simply read the English, we miss the rich wording of the Hebrew text, “and you came near and stood ‘tachat,’” literally at the foot of the mountain or under the mountain.
Why under? Picture in your mind’s eye a Jewish wedding ceremony with a magnificent chuppah, a wedding canopy. The Midrash brings forth a thought provoking idea for it says that the mountain was lifted up and became like a giant chuppah with the people standing under it. It is not clear whether this is to be taken literally or not. HaShem certainly could have performed this miracle should He have chosen to do so. The point is that this was a totally awe-inspiring one-time event in history….for amidst the fire, the clouds, the thick darkness and the thunder and lightning, the blaring sound of the shofar and HaShem’s powerful Voice, the people entered into a marriage type covenant with their G-d on that day for they responded, “We will do and we will hear.” N’aseh, v’nishma! (Exodus 24:3-7). This shows the kavanah, the intent and true heart of the children of Israel and their willingness to follow HaShem even before they knew what He was to ask of them.
The beautiful words of Hosea 2:21-22 from the Haftorah of Bamidbar which is traditionally read on the Sabbath before Shavuot come to mind here…”I will betroth you to me forever”…How breathtaking… HaShem, the Creator of the entire universe is speaking to His beloved, “I will betroth you to me “(for how long?)…Forever. I will betroth you to me with righteousness, justice, lovingkindness and mercy. I will betroth you to me with fidelity (emunah) and you shall know Me.”
Every year on the holiday of Shavuot we are reminded of this awe-inspiring event and have the opportunity to once again renew our covenantal relationship with Him!
The texts of this account are indeed chilling. You can read them in Exodus 19- 20 and Deuteronomy chapters 4 and 5. These verses indicate that they not only experienced this phenomenal event with all their senses heightened to the max, but that that they actually saw the voice…but how does one see a voice? We ask the question, did they actually see the voice or perhaps simply perceive the voice?
The Midrash teaches they saw the fiery letters coming forth from the mountain which was burning “up to the heart of heaven!” Again, whether we take this literally or not, the phenomenal experience they must have witnessed was beyond amazing…thick cloud and darkness and fire, “burning up to the heart of heaven,” from which it came…Wow, what powerful language…thus we have the term, Aish Da’at – the fire law!
The Edut, the Testimony of HaShem
The rabbis teach that HaShem created the world with the letters of the Hebrew aleph bet and some studies have indicated that there is a powerful connection between the Hebrew letters and their vibration frequency. Perhaps this in some way relates to the awesome Sinai experience, when the Creator of the Universe came down and gifted humanity with what are commonly referred to as the Ten Commandments, which in the actual Hebrew text is aseret ha’deberot and more accurately should be translated as The Ten Words, The Ten Sayings or Matters…for within them encompass all of Torah and its timeless guidelines for every society on earth.
These Ten Words form the moral compass of the universe and cannot be taken lightly, for they are the words of the Creator of the Universe, written by His own finger…etched through both sides of the tablets. In Hebrew they are referred to as the Edut, The Testimony, which is derived from the word ed, spelled Aleph Dalet, which means witness. Moses was told to carve a wooden box to house these remarkable tablets.
This simple wooden box would later be placed in another box; a beautiful box made of pure gold and would become a box within a box which would be known as the Ark of the Covenant. This ark which housed the Edut, would take a central place in the tabernacle and would under HaShem’s direction, lead the children of Israel in their journey through the wilderness. As it led the ancients in their day, so may it lead us in our journey through the present day wilderness that we face in our current shattered world.
HaShem begins His testimony by giving witness to Himself with the powerful words, “ Anochi, YHVH Elohecha, I AM HaShem your G-d “(Exodus 20:2, Deut.5:6). He makes it very personable. In Isaiah 43:10-11, He gives the edict to Israel that in turn they are to be not only His servants but His witnesses.
HaShem promises in the book of Jeremiah that His life giving Torah will one day be written in our hearts (Jer.31:32). As we strive to carry out the directive and be His witnesses, I often wonder if perhaps that etching of hearts has begun …with just the surface barely scratched?
When the World Stood Still
When HaShem gave the Torah, “There was thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud on the mountain…Mount Sinai was all asmoke…, the entire mountain trembled violently”….”And all the people saw the sounds, the flames, the blast of the ram’s horn, and the mountain smoking. And the people trembled, standing far-off” (an excerpt from article by Rabbi Eliyahu Touger based on insights of the Rebbe Shlita entitled ‘In the Garden of Torah’ based on Exodus 19:16-18, 20:15).
So powerful was the Voice of HaShem that the people asked Moshe to speak to them instead lest they die upon hearing G-d’s voice. The Talmud speaks of the reverberation of that Voice and the effect it had throughout the world at large when it says that, “No bird chirped…, not did an ox bellow, nor the sea roar”(Shemos Rabba 29:9) A still hush permeated all existence while HaShem spoke…the world was in awe!
King David speaking of this breathtaking event says at Mount Sinai, “the earth shook, the heavens also dropped at the presence of HaShem: even Sinai itself at the presence of HaShem the G-d of Israel” (Psalm 68:8-9).
It is more than curious that the letters in the word Sinai and those in the word sullam, meaning ladder, share the same gematria or numerical value, 130, and appears to link the two accounts together.
In the account at Sinai, the phrase, “from the heart of heaven,” (Deut 4:11), is used to refer to HaShem’s words…a Divine Message coming down the mountain to His people.
It was as if there was a ladder extending down from heaven to touch each individual heart with its message from above as they stood together echad as one…one people…one heart!
Perhaps this scene was a vision seen years before as told in Genesis 28:21 that involved a dream of the patriarch Jacob and another ladder reaching down from heaven!
In this account, there is also a message, but this one is delivered, not from HaShem Himself, but from the angels, His messengers, who were ascending and descending from a ladder whose “top reached to heaven.” This message was given only to Jacob, but had implications that would in the future, involve his entire family…the family that would become known as the Children of Israel and would one day become united as a nation!
The Voice from the Wilderness
Each year the Torah portion immediately preceding Shavuot read by Jews in synagogues around the world is called Bamidbar and is from the first few chapters of the book of Numbers. Bamidbar in Hebrew means “in the wilderness.” But, what does the wilderness have to do with the initial giving of the Torah and why would HaShem choose such a place to initiate His Covenant with His people?
There are numerous reasons that have been suggested. Two reasons stand out most prominently in my mind. The first is that the wilderness is a quiet place, a place where each of us can go into ourselves and meditate, and individually hear the Voice of HaShem and receive the Torah. The second is that the wilderness was a place belonging to no one…therefore no one nation of people can claim it exclusively for their own…not even the Jews. Yes, the children of Israel were initially given the Torah, but they were not to keep it exclusively as their own, but rather were to be a light to the nations and share it … for one day the Torah will go forth from Zion and the “earth will be full of the knowledge of HaShem as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9)!
This was a truly a one-time event, yet the power and scope of HaShem’s Presence there on the mountain has come down through the generations. His Voice, reverberating through the wilderness at that awesome one-time event in history has reverberated down through the ages and is continuing to echo ‘round the world which indicates that in a sense, we too have heard that Voice today. You may be thinking, when did I hear that voice? You each heard it when you answered the clarion call to come to Torah!
Listen to the words of Deut. 29:9, 13-14. “You stand this day all of you before HaShem your G-d; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Yisrael, your little ones, your wives, and your stranger that is in your camp… Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath, but with him that stands here with us this day before HaShem our G-d, and also with him that is not with us this day.”
Return it to Your Heart!
In Deuteronomy 4:39 we read the poignant words, “Know today and return it to your heart that HaShem, He is G-d! “ Think about it a moment… the text says to return it to your heart; this presupposes that it had to have once been in your heart, correct? Was it in utero as the sages of blessed memory teach or was it at Sinai or perhaps both? The sages also teach that we who seek to follow HaShem and His Torah all stood at Sinai and the written text in Deut.29 as quoted above validates that you and I along with all others truly seeking Him were in some sense indeed there.
The prophet Jeremiah says, …”if you seek me with all your heart, then you will find me” (Jer. 29:12-13)!
Baruch HaShem! We sought and we found…and are still in the process of finding as we continue our journey and diligently seek to uncover those hidden sparks beneath the surface…those hidden sparks within the Ten Words imbedded in the Torah that we have overlooked, those hidden sparks all around us that we have unknowingly let pass us by because so often we are living on auto pilot…those hidden sparks within each of us that we have either consciously or unconsciously been afraid to acknowledge for fear stepping out of our comfort zones and letting go of our preconceived notions or fear of rejection.
Each day that we live, we have the opportunity to reconnect with our Creator and the awesome Sinai experience! As we open the Torah, read and pore over His life-giving words of wisdom, may we be encouraged to look for these sparks, to let them flow freely and take root in our hearts as we live them out in our lives and share them with others.
Just as the ancients stood “like one person with one heart” echad at the foot of Mount Sinai years ago, so must we stand together today…those of Judah and all the tribes of Israel and all lovers of Torah!
May we each strive to carry the Ten Words and the awesome Sinai experience of Shavuot in our hearts as we let them permeate us to the very core of our being! May we daily acknowledge His Presence in our lives as we continually seek to live in covenant with Him and become His witness…His Ed, ד ע which is spelled out with the bold enlarged letters found in the Hebrew text of the Shema as illustrated below (Deut.6:4-9.)
Note the ayin ( ע ) at the end of the first word, Shema and the dalet (ד )at the end of last word, Echad…just another example of those Hidden Sparks beneath the Surface!
שְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל: יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יְהוָה אֶחָד
Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheynu, Adonai Echad! Chag Shavuot Sameach!
More to come in Part Two – Where Do We Go from Here…after Sinai?
By Elisheva Tavor aka Betty Tabor Givin, Sivan 5782