Shavuot’s Revelation of Self
Revelation is the heart of Torah. “G-d spoke to you face to face,” Moshe reminds the people as he recounts the great event of Sinai in which they all took part (Deut. 5:4).
That we all took part in it is essential to the meaning of Sinai. The revelation described by the Torah was not the property of one leader alone, or of an elite group, whose report had to be taken as authoritative truth. The authority of the revelation in the Torah is rather to be vouched for by the experience and the memory of each one of the community. Just as the redemption from Egypt was unmediated—“Not by means of an angel, not by means of a seraph, not by means of an agent”; “I, G-d, I and no other”—so, too, was the revelation to which the redemption led: “There was no intermediary,” said Abraham ibn Ezra (ad loc.).
As it was at first, so it remains: the authority of the revelation is to be found within. Its authenticity emerges simultaneously with the emergence of the authenticity of the self. As interesting as all other arguments may be for Torah, this essential argument is not an argument at all. It is pre-argument—the same way that we come to know that we are who we are, that reality is as reality is, so do we intuit how the authority and authenticity of Torah is as it is.
How is the content of that revelation written down for the ages? In some ways, it is not written down, for if it is to be as immediate and present for us as our own identities, there is unfolding something new to say each moment. It is, as Moshe says later in Deuteronomy, “in your mouth and in your heart, as you do it.”
But some of it was written down, engraved in stone, as we have learned to say. And the very first word on the stone is anochi—I.
It is, as it appears in the book, as it appeared on stones, the I of G-d. But the mystics break the word down to its elemental letters, each of which can be re-expanded and then stand for a full word. ANoChY—Ana Nafshi Ketavit Yehavit—wrote My self down and gave it (Likkutei Torah 48d).
Beyond giving of law, beyond imposing an order, the root of the revelation, the root of the Torah is G-d’s giving of self.
The receiving of Torah must match the generosity and the creativity of the giving.
The Talmud teaches that there was an element of coercion at Sinai. The Torah texts speak of a sensory experience so overwhelming that “all the people saw the sounds;” another text has the people telling Moshe that they couldn’t endure this any more, “lest we die.” The Talmud amplifies this, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaching that with each utterance, the souls of the Jews departed their bodies. The revelation could only proceed, he taught, by G-d’s bringing down the dew to be used to resurrect the dead in the future.
Later mystics say that the death referred to was not real death, for the experience of Sinai was one of wholeness and oneness from every aspect. Instead, the experience of the transcendent being intimately, palpably apprehensible was so overwhelming that death was the only metaphor. They were unable to integrate and return into their identities without outside help—the vivifying dew. This re-integration was thus—no less that the overwhelming infusion of Presence that made it necessary – something from the outside, not entirely part of the substance of who Israel knew themselves to be.
The revelation was in this respect incomplete—we still experienced ourselves as undergoing it, being both taken apart and put back together by something outside ourselves. Let someone extraordinary do that, Israel said. Maybe Moshe can handle that, but no one else.
Can we really want to be taken apart? If we really mean to do it and not just talk about it, how fearsome a thing! Ken Kesey talked often about how we all would like to be a voyeur of the mystic until we find ourselves the object of our piercing vision and we see a nothingness at the core. “You want to see the books? Here are the books!” Who wants their fantasy of self shattered?
If we can blame someone or something for the shattering vision, we are off the hook. Wait until the drug wears off, wait until the experience on the mountain is over, and my old self will return.
But this is exactly what the acceptance of Torah requires. If G-d is forcing this on us, we have a good cause to wiggle out whatever way we can and hunker down somewhere comfortable. But if we actually aspire to look in the book, to partner with G-d, we will have no one and nothing else to blame. There can be no excuses. It’s all on the line.
And that is what the masters said about the giving of the book at Sinai. “I put My self out and gave it to you. Will you do the same?”
No rabbis can interfere. No philosophy professor has the last word. On Shavuot, it is all about who we really choose to be. Are we ready to know ourselves as who we are in the Book?
Sleeper with heart awake,
Burning and storm-tossed,
Go out, stir yourself,
And walk in the light of My countenance.
Arise, prosper, ride on,
A star has come forth for you,
And he who lay down in the pit
Shall climb to the peak of Sinai…
(from “Sleeper With Heart Awake” by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi)
Let us choose to go up.