In about a month we will be celebrating Shavuot, the holiday marking the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Among other things, what is noteworthy is that it is not celebrated as the holiday of the receiving of the Torah, although we have a midrash - a rabbinic explanatory story saying that the soul of every person who would ever be or become Jewish was present at Sinai and received the Torah.
The holiday does not celebrate how we received the Torah because there are a lot of questions about it. In fact the Torah in Shemot, Exodus, 20:15 describes how all the People of Israel who were standing at Sinai heard lightening and saw thunder. This is a real medical phenomenon called synesthesia which can happen when someone’s sense are so overwhelmed by what they are experiencing that one’s brain can no longer process the input normally. Our brain interprets visual stimuli as sound and auditory as sight.
Clearly, standing at Sinai was such an overwhelming experience that regular people could not process it. This overpowering experience of revelation, such a massively imbalanced power dynamic, led another rabbi to share a midrash in which God held Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites and said: “If you accept the Torah this mountain is your wedding canopy. If not, it will be your gravestone.” Whether or not you think God held the mountain over our ancestors’ heads, the overwhelming experience was such that the People of Israel could not say no.
Of course, a contract accepted under duress is not binding. While God could overawe us, overwhelm us, in essence compel a yes of acceptance by virtue of the overpowering divine presence (whether that was intentional or not is not mentioned in the Torah text) the question remains for each of us: Do we consider ourselves bound by the Torah? Do we feel commanded by Jewish ritual? Shavuot is a celebration of the question that we are faced with on a regular basis: How Jewish do I want to be and what will my Judaism look like?
Shavuot is not the holiday of receiving the Torah because that is an ongoing process. On an ongoing basis, there are encounters with other people, circumstances in which we find ourselves, experiences which cause us to regularly examine our relationship to Judaism. We make new decisions about whether we want to identify as Jews and in what circumstances, and what kind of Jews we each want to be. What rituals we choose to follow, what values we espouse and whether we recognize them to ourselves and others as Jewish values, general values or both.
As Progressive Jews and active participants in the modern Western world, let’s make the most of this opportunity in the Jewish calendar to consciously explore what Jewish values, tradition, ritual and culture have to offer. As we count the days to Shavuot, take advantage of the time to explore and decide, based on where you are in your life at the moment, what - if anything - Judaism has to offer that might enrich your life and your experiences. With thousands of years of substance in hand, you might be surprised by what you will find and how much Judaism has to offer.
Rabbi Ira Goldberg