Take the version in the book of Exodus first, which provides a wild description. Imagine a tired, hungry, grumbling, sweaty, uncomfortable mass of people, just released from slavery, standing at the foot of a mountain in the sunbaked wilderness. What would it take to call this browbeaten people to attention? Proclamations of certain death, the extended blasts of a ram's horn, thunder, lightning, and dense, dark clouds upon the mountain, all leave the people in the camp trembling, as the mountain itself shakes violently, becomes beset with smoke and appears to catch fire. Revelation in Exodus is a moment not only of destiny and direction, but also of fear, fire and brimstone, and noise.
But rabbinic literature provides a contrary perspective. The medieval Midrash Exodus Rabbah offers a teaching from Rabbi Abbahu, in the name of Rabbi Yochanan. Abbahu teaches, "When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, not one of the ofannim stirred a wing, not one of the seraphim said, 'Holy, holy, holy!' The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak--the whole world was hushed into breathless silence; it was then that the voice went forth, "I am the Lord thy God."
So which was it? Please. Leave biblical criticism and academic scholarship aside and jump into the beautiful world of imagination and wonder. How was Torah revealed? Hustle and bustle, commotion and a booming presentation from on high, with voice? Or perhaps a people and a world deeply present, listening and reflective, standing together in silence? What if revelation actually requires both?
This coming Saturday evening at Temple Avodat Shalom, we will celebrate the festival of Shavuot by reveling in the gift and beauty of words of Torah, learning and studying from our people's most sacred texts, praying and singing, and, in keeping with time-honored traditions, by enjoying cheesecake and other dairy treats. This year, as part of our special program entitled, "Torah from the Heart: Personal Reflections on Life's Greatest Lessons," many of us in the community will have the opportunity to share our own stories, on people, works of literature and theatre, moments and life lessons that have shaped our journeys.
Sharing a story, sharing "personal Torah," understanding our lives as a piece of text, requires the sharer to be open, to make themselves vulnerable to their audience. Such openness does not come easily to many of us. To find words for our stories, to share lessons courageously in an effort to impart meaning to others is brave and commendable. We honor our congregants who are coming forward to participate in this very special exercise.
But storytelling, or "Torah-telling" if you will, requires someone else to participate. As we learn from the Bible and from Midrash, revelation requires "a revealer, someone to speak" and "one who hears and accepts what is revealed." It is not just about what "the revealer," or "the storyteller," or even God on top of Mount Sinai happens to say. Our program is also about those of us who are in the audience, those of us who have the privilege, accept the responsibility, and fulfill the duty of care that comes with active listening.
When we pause to hear and bear witness to another person's story, to partake in their own moment of revelation, we stand beside one another's Sinai. Being present with someone when they share of themselves openly is a true gift, a sacred opportunity. And most times, simply bearing witness to someone else's honest presentation, accepting their words without judgment rather than commenting, is all that is asked of us.
Later this week, the ABC fantasy drama Once Upon a Time will conclude after seven seasons. In a recent episode, the protagonist Henry comments, "And you may think this is just a story. But that's the thing about stories. They're more than words. They live inside of us. They make us who we are. And as long as someone believes that, there will always be magic."
Wishing you a Shavuot filled with the revelation of magical stories - tales from our tradition, lessons shared by others, and even possibly, a story or two of your own that you feel empowered to tell.
Deuteronomy 5:2-4, "The Lord our God made a covenant with us at Horeb. It was not with our fathers that the Lord made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today. Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire."
Therein rests the beauty of Jewish tradition, where we can acknowledge that there is more than one pathway towards Torah and towards God.
Exodus Rabbah 29:9.