Friday, February 02, 2024



An illustration from a published 1723 in Amsterdam, Jan and Kaspar Luiken

No moment in the Bible is more magnificent, no event more central. At the revelation on Mount Sinai, the veil between the mundane and the divine was torn away, and all assembled could see God directly.

The encounter at Mount Sinai carries great theological significance. Nachmanides says there is a daily commandment to never forget the encounter at Mount Sinai; Yehuda Halevi explains that this nationwide revelation is the foundation of the Torah. All of Judaism is a footnote to that day, an ongoing exploration of this intense spiritual singularity.

Words fail to describe that day. The Torah, in Parshat Yitro, describes something akin to a simultaneous hurricane and volcanic eruption, in which “...there were thunderings and lightning, and a thick cloud on the mountain; and the sound of the Shofar was very loud, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled … Mount Sinai was completely covered in smoke ... Its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked greatly.” (Exodus 19:16-18.)


Midrashim further dramatize this depiction. Rabbi Akiva says that the Jews saw the voice that spoke on Mount Sinai, something that is otherwise physically impossible. Other Midrashim say that all those who were blind and deaf were healed that day, and able to take part in the revelation. Another Midrash says that the call of Sinai was heard throughout the world, and all of humanity, in a sense, stood at the foot of Mount Sinai.


Taken together, these texts emphasize that the encounter at Mount Sinai was unparalleled and transcendent, an event that will never be repeated or equaled.


So where does that leave those of us who were born too late to stand at Mount Sinai? This question is particularly difficult for those with deeply religious souls. They search for God and long to hear His voice. They wait patiently for a divine calling. But sadly, there are no new Mount Sinais available, no casual daily revelations.


Most people of faith find ways to accommodate this gaping lack of inspiration. Sometimes, even an occasional glimpse of transcendence can satisfy years of spiritual cravings. But at times, we need to turn in a different direction to discover the divine.


Rav Simcha Bunim of Przysucha can help direct us. Rav Simcha Bunim was the “Un-Rebbe,” a radical Hassidic leader who diminished the importance of his own position, and urged his followers to find their own path. He would illustrate his view of the Rebbe’s role with the following parable:


Isaac from Krakow was a poor tailor, who was plagued by a recurring dream. In the dream, he had a vision of a large bounty of gold which was hidden under a bridge outside the imperial palace in Prague. Night after night, this dream would repeat itself, until finally, Isaac decided he had to make the ten-day journey to Prague to find this treasure. He explained to his wife why he had to go, and started his journey.


In Prague, Isaac arrived and found the bridge just as it appeared in his dream. But he couldn’t dig for the treasure, because it was always under heavy guard; the bridge was right outside the palace, after all. For three nights, Isaac studied the guards’ rotations, hoping to find a pause long enough to allow him to start his search. On the third night, one of the guards grabbed him and arrested him. The guard shouted at Isaac, “You spy, I recognize you! You’ve been here three nights in a row, plotting against the king.” Isaac, in shock, began to sputter how he was an innocent man who was there because he had had a dream about some gold hidden under the bridge. Recognizing the simple sincerity of Isaac’s words, the guard released Isaac, and with a laugh, said: “You fool, you stood there for three nights straight just because of a dream! Last night I had a dream that there’s a treasure buried in the backyard of Isaac, the tailor in Krakow. Do you think I’m going to travel all the way to Krakow just because of a silly dream?”


Isaac immediately returned home. When he entered his house, his wife asked him: “Where’s the treasure?”


Isaac responded: “Give me a shovel and I’ll show you.”


Isaac went outside and dug up the gold. The Prague treasure had been hidden right in his backyard all along.


Rav Simcha Bunim used this tale as a parable about spirituality and wisdom. People chase spiritual gurus and great rabbis in the hope of achieving spiritual heights. But in the end, what we are looking for is hiding in our own backyard, buried under a lot of nonsense. 


For those in search of great revelations, Rav Simcha Bunim’s parable reminds us that before looking elsewhere, we need to turn inward and find the treasures buried in our own hearts.


This is true of the encounter at Sinai as well. The Talmud (Niddah 30b) relates that every child is instructed the entire Torah in their mother’s womb, only to have an angel force the child to forget what they learned at birth. This text is a bit of a riddle; why teach the fetus Torah, if it is meant to ultimately forget it a few weeks later?


Rav Simcha Bunim’s parable explains this text well. The Torah once studied may be forgotten, but its imprint remains. What makes revelation compelling is that our hearts are already attuned to what is being said. There are debates among philosophers as to whether all of the commandments can be understood intellectually; but they are certainly understood by the soul, which immediately attaches itself to the divine. And that a priori appreciation of revelation, that knowledge before knowledge, is a treasure we carry in our own hearts. Even when we stand far away from Sinai, there is another source of inspiration, right at our side.


Since October 7th, I have heard story after story of ordinary people who have done extraordinary things. When they tell others about what happened, they share one refrain: “I never imagined that I could have done this.” Yet in a time of crisis, these heroes found remarkable inner strength. Ordinary Israelis took on the battle from day one, rushing to the front lines before being called up. A soldier sacrificed his own life by falling on a grenade to save his comrades’ lives. Rescuers entered the Nova Festival under heavy fire and saved the lives of hundreds of participants. Dedicated parents, brothers, sisters, and children, have traveled everywhere demanding that the world bring the relatives home from captivity. A young mom built a large distribution center for evacuees in just a few days. Academicians have become ad hoc military suppliers, providing much-needed protective gear to soldiers. Bereaved parents have spoken to group after group, offering strength and comfort to others even while their own hearts are broken. Amidst all the darkness and destruction, these accidental heroes heard a small, still voice of inspiration, and answered the call.


For years, I wondered if I could ever experience something like the encounter at Sinai; when would I feel the ground tremble with divine inspiration?


Now I have an answer. We stand at Sinai once again when we meet one of these heroes. They are spiritual treasures, right here in our own backyard. Listen to them, listen to their stories. What they have done is amazing.


And the world trembles before their greatness.

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