5758 - #13
THE FLOW OF SINAI
It is an understatement to describe G-d's Revelation at Sinai as the most significant event in human history. No description can fully capture the majesty and magnitude of this episode. The full implication of this incident, though, is often not comprehended. Rather than a pinnacle of existence, a conclusion to a search for G-d, Sinai represents a beginning, a commencement of a new dynamic interaction between G-d and the Jewish nation that is predicated on the relationship between the human will and the Will of G-d.
In the consciousness of North America, religion is synonymous with faith. The essence of religion is faith itself, an acknowledgement of the Presence of the Deity in one's life. The challenge of religion is the acceptance of this faith; success is achieved when faith is affirmed, defeat when faith is denied. The attainment of clear faith is thus the objective; the experience of the Presence of G-d is the goal.
Sinai challenges this concept. All the Jews heard the words of the first two statements of the Decalogue directly from G-d;1 they experienced a perception of G-d that they, or subsequent generations, would never repeat. Faith and the clear presence of Hashem is the starting point of Torah, not its conclusion. While Rambam counts belief in G-d as the first mitzvah,2 commentators such as Ramban challenge this count: faith precedes the mitzvot.3 Knowledge of G-d is the foundation for the system but inherently is not part of the system. One must, as the basis of the system of Torah, know of the existence of G-d and recognize the responsibility of humanity to accept His Monarchy and thereby be bound to follow His Will. The system of Torah, itself, though is the presentation of G-d's Will - and the dynamics of Torah centre on the encounter between G-d's Will and the human will. Acknowledging the Existence of G-d is not the purpose of being. Sinai declares that it is the effect of His Existence upon humanity that gives purpose.
At issue is the flow by which we encounter G-d. Religious experience or behaviour is often defined in terms of human drives. An individual is perceived as having a drive for spirituality; religion is perceived as offering the satisfaction of this drive. The movement towards the Deity is thus deemed to begin from within the person; religion is the natural completion of this movement. The flow necessarily is from the human to G-d.
It is argued that this is natural, that the Deity placed such drives within humanity so that the individual will be driven towards the religion. This is deemed to be the challenge of faith. Faith naturally exists within a person; the question is whether one will follow these natural tendencies to their conclusion, to the encounter with the Divine. Through the feeling of belief, the objective is for the individual and the religion to naturally merge. The goal is contentment - and as religion is but the natural outgrowth of the individual's own drive, with religion and the satisfaction of the drive, contentment is achieved.
Sinai, though, declares the flow to essentially begin with G-d and not humanity. His Existence is declared, not as an outgrowth of the satisfaction of a drive but as a statement in reality. "I am Hashem, your G-d, Who took you out of Egypt..."4 The Existence of G-d is established; His Might and His Dominion are facts. G-d is not the object of a human drive. He is the subject; it is humanity that is called upon to respond. The flow is from G-d to the human,5 and the flow is through Torah. At Sinai, He declared His Will and thereby challenged the human will.
drives us to the Divine. While we may forego some aspects of our desires, our self is still in tact for it is us who are driving the relationship, it is the human who flows unto G-d. Contentment is natural as the human drive leads to its object of satisfaction.
Sinai's encounter with G-d, though, does not yield contentment but disarray. Torah challenges our personal essence and the human will. G-d does not just declare His Being but also the demands He expects the human being to fulfil. He is not just the object of satisfaction for our religious drives. He confronts us and calls upon us to act differently, in response to His Will, then we would otherwise act. We are in conflict.
Yet, the relationship of Sinai, ultimately, is dynamic for it is not just action that G-d wishes. As Rabbi Moshe Feinstein6 points out, it is not G-d's Will that the Jew just act. Hashem wishes the Jew to integrate Torah into his being. G-d's Will is not served if one performs the action but does not allow the essence of Hashem's directive to enter his being and thereby affect a change within the person. Yet, His Will is also not served if the extent of this change is the negation of the person. The dynamic confrontation of Will and wills that is the essence of Sinai must be marked by the dynamic effect within the individual of growth.
I heard in the name of the Kotzker that Shavuot was the time of the giving of the Torah but that was not when it was received. Torah can only be received by each individual Jew after much work integrating Torah into one's essence. And then, each individual has their Torah - their own personal unique Torah, for the integration of Torah with each personal essence yields uniqueness.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail
1 T.B. Makkot 23b.
2 Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot, aseh 1.
3 The challenge against including faith as a mitzvah is so strong that many commentators attempt to explain Rambam by defining this mitzvah of faith in a manner that involves an obligation to act beyond the basic acceptance of this truth. See, for example, Kinat Sofrim.
4 Shemot 20:2.
5 This is not to say that the flow from the human to G-d is absolutely displaced. Clearly there are many, such as the Ba'al HaTanya who place great value on the natural tendency of the human soul to reach for the Divine. It must also be recognized that it is the human drive that often initiates the return to Torah in our modern world - it is the drive that initiates the investigation of one's roots, and thus discovers Sinai. Yet, the reality of the encounter at Sinai must still be recognized and offers important insights.
6 Kol Ram, vol. 3, page 372-373.
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