This week's parsha begins with the image of Moses speaking to the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, בְּהַ֥ר סִינַ֖י (Lev. 25:1). With Shavuot just a week away, I have been thinking about another moment when we hear of the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai. In Exodus we read, "Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain : ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר" (Ex. 19:17). In this rendering, the Israelites were not merely at the mountain, but the hebrew suggests, potentially beneath it (תחתית/tachatit, from the root תחת/tachat, meaning under). The rabbi's of the Talmud pick up on this image and tell this story:
As it is written: “And they stood at the foot of the mountain”: And Rav Dimi bar Ḥama says: The verse teaches that the Holy Blessed One overturned the mountain above the Jews like a basin, and said to them: "If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there, under the mountain, will be your graves" (BT. Avodah Zara 2b).
Ouch! This scary story has stuck with me every since I learned it my first year of rabbinical school. This is the story of Judaism by coercion. It paints an image of Torah by force and mitzvot as ultimatums. Needless to say, it is not a vision of revelation that I relate to. But it may be one that exists in some of our psyches. Perhaps because we were raised in homes and houses of worship motivated by guilt; perhaps because we feel utterly inadequate in the face of the infinite nature of Jewish tradition. Perhaps some Jewish texts really do threaten death and suffering in response to religious disobedience. One way or another, it may be a story that we are healing from and re-writing in our heads.
Now, it is essential to hold that this is one story among so many about what revelation at Sinai was/is/will be like. Other midrashim describe it as angels whispering in your ear, a kiss on the lips, an epic thunder storm, a symphony of shofars, a permeating silence.
With one week left to prepare for Shavuot, I invite you to imagine yourself at the foot of the mountain. Where does Torah come from? What story do you want to (re)tell about your relationship to the Holy One? What can you do to prepare for revelation?
Rabbi Ari Lev