Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This week we read about the epiphany at Sinai, when God gave us and the world the Ten Commandments.  This momentous event was accompanied by great hoopla.  There was thunder, lightening, shofar blasts, and, finally the voice of God.  This voice was awesome.  I would have liked to have had the ear plugs concession. However, there are problems with this scene.  Our Sages are very clear that the reaction of the Jews at the foot of the mountain was for this event (and for this event only) was as one person with one heart (Rashi, Exodus 19:2).  But what was this unified reaction?  Well, that's not so clear.  The famous statement, 'all that God has spoken, we will do and we will obey (24:7),' sounds like they were enthusiastic about all this.  However, Moshe reminds them later (Deuteronomy 5:20-24) that they were so scared during this experience that they begged Moshe to come between them and God.  They didn't want to hear directly from God.  Maybe their promise to keep the mitzvoth was out of fear rather than devotion.  This whole scenario needs more investigation.

            The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat presents many opinions about the incident at Sinai.  One of the most memorable is that myriads of angels descended to coronate the Jews for the greatness of their commitment to God and the Torah.  Perhaps, though, the most famous is less complimentary.  The Gemara records:  And they stood under the mount:  R. Abdimi ben Hama ben Hasa said: This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like an inverted cask, and said to them, 'If you accept the Torah, it is well; if not, there shall be your burial.' R. Aha b. Jacob observed: This provides a strong protest against the Torah.  Said Raba, Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus and the Purim story, for it is written, the Jews confirmed, and took upon themselves; they confirmed what they had accepted long before (TB Shabbat 88a).  Not very inspiring, God had to put a gun (okay, a mountain) to our heads to make us take the Torah.

            Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo explains that the coercive nature of the covenant wasn't physical force.  It was the monotony of miracles.  He describes how the Jews were unable to appreciate the profundity of the Sinai experience because the barrage of wonders from plagues through Red Sea crossing had rendered them insensitive to God's presence.  On the other hand, during the Purim salvation no obvious miracles took place.  The theologically challenged might not notice God at all, and for that reason God isn't mentioned explicitly in the Megilah.  However, those who were searching found God behind the mask of natural phenomena.  Rabbi Cardozo concludes:  Ironically, those who witnessed more, saw less; those who witnessed less, actually saw more.

            This fascinating comment by Rabbi Cardozo actually feeds into a famous problem that has plagued Bible scholars for millennia.  We are eternally troubled by the speed and severity of the Jews' fall from the lofty heights attained at the foot of Mount Sinai.  How could they rebel against the commandment to eschew idolatry while still encamped where that mitzvah was given?  Rabbi Cardozo suggests the problem was boredom.  They became so used to miracles that they ignored their significance and strayed immediately when things didn't follow their expectations.  This idea is fascinating and is in accord with an idea expressed by the English philosopher and mathematician, Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947):  The history of European thought has been tainted by a fatal misunderstanding.  It may be termed the Dogmatic Fallacy. Modern man has fallen into the trap of believing that everything can be explained. Even if he doesn't understand what he perceives around him he has faith in the power of Science to reveal order, and master nature.   I wouldn't call this boredom as much as the lack of wonder.  The great physicist Max Planck (1858-1947) said:  The feeling of wonderment is the source and inexhaustible fountainhead of the desire for knowledge.  We need wonder.

            Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1907-1972) built on the idea of Dr. Planck in his book God in Search of Man, when he wrote:  Wonder or radical amazement is the chief characteristic of the religious person's attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things… He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However, such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all.  We still wonder at the sunrise even though we know it's coming.  We are still moved by the beauty of a rain bow even though we know it's just the refraction of light through the raindrops behaving as prisms.  If one is not emotionally and spiritually moved by these events, then that person has ceased to be a religious personality, and joins the spiritual indifference displayed by the Jews during the sin of the Golden Calf.

            On the other hand, something special happened during the Purim experience.  These Persian Jews who had wandered far from their Jewish roots, found spiritual awakening in the totally unexpected success over Haman and his Final Solution plot.  This wonder became light and joy, and gladness and glory (Esther 8:16).  It was that joyous acceptance of God and Torah principles which inspires us and connects us to the giving of the Torah, until our own times.  We have leapfrogged the historic failures and disappointments to feel energized by the Divine source of our heritage. 

            I pray that we can overcome the spiritual blahs engendered by the lack of wonder in nature and by the rote performance of mitzvoth.  May we continually marvel and admire this world and its Creator, and may the reading again of the awesome incident at Sinai engender in us what Rabbi Heschel called radical amazement.   Then we'll perform mitzvoth, not because we have to, but because we want to.



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