Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk

There have been a small number of outstanding people who used to approach young adults at the Kotel and offer them a Shabbat meal or a Yeshiva experience. This was the beginning of a Torah life style for many of these people in search, the 'backpackers of the Wall'. Besides paying homage to their untiring efforts, I want to mention one of the famous quotes they would sometimes use: You look familiar to me; I must remember you from Har Sinai. This ingenious 'pick up' line is based on a powerful Midrash that, indeed, all Jewish souls stood together at the foot of Har Sinai in the presence of God during the remarkable revelation that momentous morning 3300 years ago. So, what was so special about the incident at Sinai that we all had to be there?

First of all, the concept that every Jewish soul was present at Har Sinai is based on a Talmudic statement: When Moshe told the Jews 'but with those standing here with us today before the Lord, our God, and also with those who are not here with us, this day (Deuteronomy 29:14)' refers to the Jews physically standing at Har Sinai and to all future generations and converts (Shavuot 39a). This idea is very powerful. However, I'm not sure what it means. It could mean that since souls are not physical entities they are not bound by time, so they could have been there, too. Or, perhaps, like many Midrashim, it's not meant literally. It's a metaphor explaining to us how we are the eternal extension of our ancestors who literally stood there and accepted the covenant of Torah. Don't know. My own thinking changes and wavers over time. In reality, I have another question.

Why Har Sinai? Why did the Torah hint and the Sages state explicitly that the universally shared experience of our people should be the epiphany at Sinai? I mean, it's not a bad candidate. It is the basis for our acceptance of Torah and mitzvot, but I would have chosen another event. Last week, we read that at the splitting of the Sea the Jews proclaimed, 'THIS is my God (Exodus 15:2)!' The use of the demonstrative pronoun zeh, led the Sages to make the following unbelievable statement, quoted by Rashi, 'The lowest rungs of society saw more at the Sea than Yechekel saw when the heavens opened before him (Mechilta).' In other words, the clearest view of God ever achieved by mortals was at the shore of the Sea. Shouldn't that be the experience we all want to share? Wasn't that the pinnacle of Divine revelation? We must  explore to find that unique quality of the revelation of Sinai that made it the most worthy event for universal participation.

Although we can make a case for Sinai's importance being based on our adherence to Torah and loyalty to our system of halacha, I think that we have to look elsewhere. There's a very cool verse right after the Ten Commandments, which I believe is the key to the conundrum. The text states: And all the people saw the sounds and the torches (20:15). We don't usually 'see' sounds. What's going on? Rashi says, 'They saw which was audible, which isn't possible under any other circumstances.' Okay, it's a miracle. Even though there a number of more rational authorities who go with some plausible linguistic explanations (for example: the word for sight can include all the senses), let's stick with the extraordinary approach.

But why the need for supernatural apprehension of the information at Sinai? The Sfat Emet (second Gerer Rebbe, 1847-1905) initially suggests clarity. The Rebbe explains, 'For one who sees, perceives the seen object in perfect manner as it is without any change (1875).' There's a lot to be said for that approach, because our ancestors required clarity to make their momentous commitment of 'we will do, and we will understand' which appears in next week's parsha. But a few years later the Rebbe refined his thinking on our verse, and wrote, 'There are things that cannot be uttered by the mouth, but only perceived by the eye of the mind (Pesach, 1879).' According to the Rebbe, they were 'seeing' through auspices other than the eye. The verb 'seeing' here is closer to a function of the brain than of the eye. Do you see what I mean?

The Jews at Har Sinai were short-circuiting the normal sensory flow of information. I guess you could call it Extra Sensory Perception. I recently read an article about Professor Digby Tantum of Sheffield, England, who wrote about non-verbal human communication. He believes that people are always picking up signals from each other which we are always working to interpret. He says these micro-signals are almost like a wi-fi network among human brains. He uses this hypothesis to explain many phenomena, like intuition, 'gut' feelings, and even why people avoid eye contact on public transportation, we can't handle the overload of signals. I personally believe this idea has great merit. Those of us who have stronger powers of reception are often the spiritual leaders we go to for guidance. Perhaps that's what happened at Sinai.

Presented for your consideration: The statement about seeing that which is normally heard, means that much of the information transmitted at Sinai was received directly into the brain. I believe that this is what the Gerer Rebbe meant when he said that they were using their  'mind's eye'. Why would God desire such a phenomenon at Har Sinai? The Rebbe explained that too: clarity! For one shining moment history, every Jew was in perfect harmony.

Now we can answer my original question: Why is this the moment when every Jew, past and future was standing together shoulder to shoulder in unity? Because this was only moment in history when we were all exactly on the same wave length, the ultimate same page scenario. Wow! We eagerly await the encore.

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