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What Happened at Sinai?

The Festival of Shavuot begins tomorrow evening, June 11.

Shavuot commemorates the pivotal moment when God revealed Torah on Mount Sinai.

So unique in history did the Sages of our people envision the event at Sinai that they imagined the whole world coming to a complete silent standstill. In the words of the Midrash:

When God gave the Torah, no bird twittered, no fowl flew, no ox grunted…the sea did not roar … the whole world hushed in breathless silence, and the Divine voice went forth proclaiming (Exodus 20:2): “I am the Lord your God; who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Shemot Rabbah 29:9)

What makes this moment so unique? At Sinai the Covenant God made first with Abraham alone became the privilege and sacred responsibility of the entire Jewish people, past, present and future.

What actually took place at Sinai?

It should surprise no one that our Sages fertile minds produced a number differing Midrashim. Here are four:

In one God offers Torah to all the nations of the world. But when they hear what it says –Don’t cheat, don’t steal, treat the stranger the widow, the orphan and the poor with special dignity and respect – they all reject it out of hand. (See Sefer Ha-Agadah (Bialik and Rovenitzky, editors, vol. 1, p. 59).

Another Midrash, that I like to call, “The Godfather Midrash,” envisions God lifting Mount Sinai and hold it over the heads of the assembled Children of Israel. Then God says, “Either you accept and pledge to observe my Torah or I shall drop the mountain on top of you.” (B. Shabbat 88A and B. Avodah Zarah 2B)

This Midrash teaches us the vital lesson that our only purpose as a people is to be teachers and examples of the ideals of Torah to the world.

Indeed by adherence to these ideals we become in the words of the Prophet Isaiah; “A light to the nations,” (Isaiah 49:6) a worthy example for all. If we are not willing to accept the responsibility of adhering to the Torah’s ideals, there is no good reason for us to continue to exist.

A third Midrash that states that unless Israel agrees to embrace the Torah and its ideals, God would break the promise made after the flood never to destroy the world again (B. Shabbat 88A).

A fourth Midrash stresses the importance of passing the ideal of Torah to future generations. In this Midrash God demands that we demonstrate that we are worthy to receive it? When God asks us to offer guarantors of our worthiness, we offer the deeds of our patriarchs and our prophets but God finds neither of these acceptable.

Only when we pledge the loyalty of our children to God’s teachings does God reveal the Torah to our people. (Shir Ha Shirim Rabbah, Chapter 1, Section 4, Midrash 1)

The rabbinic method of interpretation encouraged creative thought. There was rarely only one acceptable point of view on any question. Here I have shared four different rabbinic versions of how the greatest moment in our religious history came to be.  There are others. Each one, though, stresses our privilege and responsibility to study Torah and pass its teachings on to the next generation.

 

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