Reb Zalman on morning prayer
After the summit, the climb: a Shavuot teaching

The anniversary of the revelation of Torah


Photo, sunbeams at Sinai, by flickr user jacobwod.


Tonight and tomorrow are the anniversary of the revelation of Torah.

The anniversary. One of my favorite teachings holds that tonight, Shavuot, is the Jewish people's wedding anniversary with God. On this date we stood together with God. We and God pledged ourselves in everlasting covenant. The written Torah, that beautiful hand-calligraphed parchment scroll, contains our ketubah, our written agreement of the promises we and God make to each other. One teaching holds that on this date, God held the mountain of Sinai up in the sky -- that we stood not at the foot of the mountain, but quite literally beneath the mountain; that the mountain was our chuppah, our wedding-canopy, for our marriage with God. (Another midrash holds that God held the mountain over us as a kind of threat. But I like the wedding midrash better.)

The anniversary of the revelation. On this day, long long ago, we camped at the base of Sinai. The Torah uses a singular verb to say that we camped there, and Rashi reads that to mean that the Israelite people camped there as a single entity, with one heart and one purpose. On this day, long long ago, despite all of our frustrations and our differences, we were together at the mountain as one. We were one people, one heart, one community. And in that state of oneness, we entered into relationship with God. In that state of oneness, we received revelation. We experienced divinity. We experienced the theophany, God's revelation-of-God's-self, a transmission of something from beyond our ken.

The anniversary of the revelation of Torah. What was revealed? Some say that God spoke the Aseret ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments as we read them in Torah. Some say that God spoke only the first line, "I am Adonai your God," or perhaps only the first word, a great anochi reverberating. Some say that God spoke only the first letter, a silent aleph, and the whole rest of the Torah was communicated via ultra-compressed instantaneous download. The midrash teaches that each of us heard according to her or his own capabilities. Just as manna had a different taste for each person who consumed it, so the revelation reached different people in different ways. God spoke with one voice, but each of us heard the Torah which we most uniquely needed to hear.

My teacher Reb Zalman (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi) teaches that the revelation wasn't just a onetime thing: it's happening even now. God broadcasts on all channels, and we hear on the frequencies to which we're attuned. Ours is not the only revelation; other peoples, other traditions, have received other revelations on the channels where they're tuned-in. They've perceived different facets of the Infinite. We're all like those blind men in the parable, each of whom thought the elephant was something different because of what he perceived when he reached out to touch. But the existence of other revelations doesn't obviate ours; you don't have to be wrong for me to be right. The revelation at Sinai was a burst of divine presence, a transmission from beyond -- and that transmission is still going. As the Browncoats say, you can't stop the signal.

Each of us is a kind of radio receiver, able to tune in to God's broadcast. On Shavuot, we open our hearts and attune ourselves to God. What's the revelation that you most need to receive tonight as the heavens open? What Torah does the world most need, right here, right now? What will you draw down and channel into the world this Shavuot?