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What happened at Sinai?

by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman


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Every year, countless Jews are affected by MSD. While some attempt to confront it head-on, many adopt the precarious stance of denial, or worse, apathy.

MSD is Mount Sinai Difficulty. It’s one of the most common difficulties Jews have with Judaism. Some events, even if recorded by a thousand cameras and broadcast worldwide, are just too extraordinary to accept. It took years for the world to accept that the Wright Brothers were flying in the air, even after trainloads of people had witnessed it. Similarly, although the evidence for the Mount Sinai Event is difficult to dispute, people remain skeptical nonetheless.

The Mount Sinai Event is the central event of Jewish history, theology and consciousness. It is the shared memory of an entire people who claim to have heard the Creator of the Universe speaking to them en masse. It’s far too outrageous to be a myth — how could you possibly convince an entire nation of such an event if it never happened? People would say, “Why did my father never tell me any of this?” The very fact that no other people ever came up with anything like it screams out its veracity. So why is it so difficult to accept?

Mount Sinai Difficulty stems principally from the way it is conventionally presented: A Big Booming Voice intimidates from the heavens, declaring ten do’s and don’ts that you had better follow or else. It makes G-d look like a complete outsider, spamming the universe by breaking the rules. It reinforces a very dualistic conception of theology: There is G-d and there is a world, and the only way G-d can relate to the world is by being the Big Bully.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, presents the Mount Sinai Event in fascinatingly different terms. Especially fascinating because nothing he’s saying is really new — it’s just what the classical sources were saying all along.

Take, for example, the Zohar: “There was no place from whence He did not speak…”, or the Talmud: “They looked to the east and saw the voice, to the west, … from each direction they saw the voice speaking: ‘Anochi’—‘ I am the Eternal, your G-d’.” Not a Big Booming Voice from heaven, but the voice of each thing in heaven and earth.

Now imagine being there at the foot of Mt. Sinai, amidst the entire multimedia explosion, looking about and seeing how each rock and shrub is screaming, “Anochi!”. Every limb of every person about you, every limb of your own, all screaming the same thing. Even every memory of the past, as well as visions of the future, all screaming, “Anochi!”.

Basically, you’re receiving a new vision of the same old world: That which a moment ago appeared to be just a world, now reveals that it is no more than G-d speaking to you.

As for the ten ‘thou shalts and thou shants’— those, the Rebbe declares, were incidental. The forefront experience was the simple fact that G-d could be heard through each element of the world. The media was the message.

Somehow, that’s much easier to accept. After all, why shouldn’t history have its lucid moments and space its transparent surfaces? Even in the best of puppet shows, the puppeteer’s hand is occasionally exposed and the puppets seen for what they really are: no more than extensions of someone’s imagination. Here too, the world’s facade of independence was briefly stripped away, and the world was seen for what it really is: Nothing more than G-d communicating with human consciousness.

It also makes sense of a few other issues:

For one, tradition tells us there was no echo when G-d spoke. Big Booming Voices always have echoes. But if each thing was resonating with the same voice, then of course nothing would bounce it back as an echo. Because each thing in the world was a part of the revelation.

TAGS: sinai


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Convincing people of something that didn't happen

Posted by: Jonathan on Jan 15, 2007

The Jews were convinced of things that they had never heard of before at least twice in history, the first in 2 Kings 22, when they find a scroll of the Torah (the last of the five books of Moses?) that no one had heard of its contents, then the king established it as law, and then a second time when Ezra and Nehemiah return from the Babylonian exile and establishes the Torah once again.

Editor's Comment

1. The story in Kings is about the original Torah Scroll. Kings II 22:8 "I have found THE scroll of the law". Note: they didn't find A scroll, they found THE scroll; the scroll they all knew of already. (When you read the whole chapter, and whole story of that period of history, it is evident that they found an old Torah Scroll which survived the previously attempted destruction of all Torah Scrolls). 2. The Jews kept the Torah in Babylonia. They had prophets there as well. There was never a broken link in the chain since the Sinai event.


Posted by: Anonymous on May 13, 2007

This is a very poetic explanation, but there are just 2 problems:

1. The Text says the opposite

2. It is Panthiestic, not Monothiestic.

Either G-d spoke from Heaven, like the Torah says, or all creation spoke and claimed to be divine.

Editor's Comment

Thank you for bringing this up. 1. I don't think the author meant they literally emitted sound; as a matter of fact, the Midrash (Shmos Rabba29:9) states "no bird chirped, no fowl took flight... the world was silent, and a voice was heard: I am G-d your G-d". I believe the author, who is famous for his brilliant form of abstract writing, intends to convey that at that moment all of existence gave testimony to the oneness of the Creator; nothing took on the form of an independent identity. Of course this testimony wasn't verbal, as the author writes "Actually, whenever I think of the rocks "talking," the image of malleable, bouncy rocks with smiley, singing human faces straight out of Disney come to mind! But of course, that's nonsense.", but poetically speaking you can say it was 'said'. It is perhaps akin to an art salesman pointing to a masterpiece and telling his client "this one 'speaks' for itself". 2. Judaism's monotheism is in fact very similar to pantheism; for in Judaism not only is there only a mono G-d, but there is only mono, period. Everything is one. The difference is that in pantheism they have confined G-d to the limitations of nature. In Judaism we have freed nature from its own limitations by pointing to the G-dliness at its core. In other words, whereas in pantheism all of G-d is nature, in Judaism all of nature is (an expression of) G-d, but all of G-d is not nature.


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Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
The most basic work of Jewish mysticism. Authored by Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai in the 2nd century.
A Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
One who follows the teachings of the Chassidic group which was formerly based in the Belarus village of Lubavitch. Today, the movement is based in Brooklyn, New York with branches worldwide. The Lubavitch movement is also widely known as "Chabad."
Baal Shem Tov
Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), Polish mystic and founder of the Chassidic movement.
(Pl. Midrashim). Non-legal material of anecdotal or allegorical nature, designed either to clarify historical material, or to teach a moral point. The Midrashim were compiled by the sages who authored the Mishna and Talmud (200 BCE-500 CE).
The first book of the Five Books of Moses. It records the story of Creation and its aftermath, and chronicles the lives of the Patriarchs.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.