I woke this past Thursday morning around 5:30am to booming thunder. It was an unbelievable storm that lasted for more than two hours. The thunder and lightning were so loud and so clear it felt as though they might be coming from within our house. Somehow, my children slept through it. But I could not. I found myself laying in bed utterly terrified. Many times I actually said thank you for my house, for its shelter and protection. I thought of folks who are insufficiently housed and the utter chaos of a storm like that.
I felt viscerally scared to the bone. This was not a rational fear. It felt like some kind of primordial terror. And though the circumstances were entirely different, and I risk sounding like a parody of myself, I could not help but think of the Israelites at Sinai.
Let's journey back several months, way before the books of Numbers and Leviticus, to the middle of Exodus where the Israelites find themselves at the foot of the mountain. Exodus 19:16 reads,
וַיְהִי֩ בַיּ֨וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֜י בִּֽהְיֹ֣ת הַבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְהִי֩ קֹלֹ֨ת וּבְרָקִ֜ים וְעָנָ֤ן כָּבֵד֙ עַל־הָהָ֔ר וְקֹ֥ל שֹׁפָ֖ר חָזָ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃
On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled.
Just weeks ago we recalled this story as we prepared for Shavuot. And while I might have been aware of the fear and trembling of revelation, I was much more connected to the magic of that moment.
But you simply need to ask anyone who has ever read Torah, particularly any of our recent Adult B'nei Mitzvah. Being in the presence of the open Torah and reciting those ancient words off of the parchment scroll is terrifying. Don't get me wrong, it is also exhilarating. But that is not what people remark. They often talk to me about how much more scared they were than they thought they would be. In this way, everyone who reads and receives Torah is standing again at Sinai.
The account of the Israelites at Sinai is also linked to the most awesome and terrifying moment in our holiday cycle. In the beginning of the Unetaneh Tokef on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as we plead for our lives, we hark back to this moment of revelation at Sinai:
וּבְשׁוֹפָר גָּדוֹל יִתָּקַע. וְקוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה יִשָּׁמַע.
The great shofar is sounded and the still small voice is heard.
וּמַלְאָכִים יֵחָפֵזוּן. וְחִיל וּרְעָדָה יֹאחֵזוּן.
the angels are alarmed, pangs of fear and trembling seize them...
This is how I felt on Thursday morning – seized by pangs of fear and trembling. Which led me to wonder, why would whoever wrote the Torah want this sensation to be associated with the revelation of Torah at Sinai?
On the one hand, it was not an empowering feeling. It gave me great empathy for those among us who have experienced this kind of religious terror. And on the other hand, fear is also an invitation to have courage.
The poet David Whyte writes,
"To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences. To be courageous is to seat our feelings deeply in the body and in the world..." (Consolations, 40).
The thunder and lightning that were present at Sinai, and this past Thursday morning, invite us to make conscious those things we already deeply feel and to live in relationship to our unending vulnerabilities. So too with our study of Torah and our observance of Shabbat. May it give us the courage to feel deeply and to live in a greater relationship with ourselves, our bodies, and the world.
May it be so.
In honor of Juneteenth, I am completely honored to share with you the words of Rabbi Sandra Lawson. May we merit to be a community that increases Black joy in the world.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.