It is not an exaggeration to characterize the Revelation at Sinai as the prime foundational experience in the life of the Jewish people. At Sinai, Jewish law, peoplehood, theology, and ethics were all conceived simultaneously amid thunder, smoke, and the blare of the shofar. With the first syllable reverberating from the mountaintop, Israel assumed a new relationship with their God, who would—for all time—be their unique, transcendent Teacher.
But for the Jewish people, the mechanics of revelation do not unfold merely in a vertical dimension between the Commander and the commanded; Torah is also revealed in the horizontal dimension, through the democratic, communal bonds between study partners. From Sinai until now, in every Jewish community, each successive insight that Jews bring to their study of Torah makes it possible for God’s self to unfurl in new ways. In this way, the beliefs and practices of Jewish life take on sharper clarity in every generation of Israel’s peoplehood.
Initially, of course, our Israelite ancestors were not eager to embrace their relationship with God’s word; they cowered from God’s voice and retreated from Sinai, leaving Moses alone to receive the Ten Commandments. (Exodus 20:15–18). Despite Moses’s high hopes about the inspiring power of divine speech, its sheer force terrified the first generation of God’s students huddled at Sinai’s foot and might have ironically led to their spiritual impoverishment if the people hadn’t quickly developed the skills of interpretive and imaginative Jewish learning.
Creativity and innovation are critical skills for Jewish learners, and these skills were inculcated in us by Moses himself at the very beginning of our relationship with Torah. Looking down at the frightened Israelite masses at the base of the mountain, Moses must have realized quickly that, in order to worship an invisible God who demands faith in the not-yet possible, he would have to nurture Israel’s capacity for interpretive imagination. Moses needed to demonstrate that the exercise of Jewish learning can bring the impossible and the intangible into being—and so, immediately after the commandments are revealed, he goes on to teach his homeless, landless people about cisterns, vineyards, and olive groves (Deuteronomy 6:10–11).
The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (B. Makot 23b–24a) suggest that at Sinai, the Israelites heard only the first two of the Ten Commandments directly; the rest were heard only by Moses and translated faithfully to the people. But Moses refers to the entire Decalogue as having been heard by “every one of us who is here today” (Deuteronomy 5:3), not only those who stood at the mountain. Thus, each subsequent repetition of the words of Torah comprises a miraculous, eternal act of religious witness, and every opportunity for learning Torah is an endeavor of radical imagination. For the generation of Sinai, this meant molding their minds and hearts to accommodate things that did not yet exist; for us, the imaginative work of Torah study may mean imagining versions of ourselves that do not yet exist, and then working to bring those selves into being.
Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments, a new publication from CCAR Press, was conceived to simultaneously recognize the primacy of the Sinai moment and embrace the multivocality of contemporary Jewish learning—both within and beyond the Reform Movement. The book presents two or three chapters focusing on each of the Ten Commandments. The essays are written by a diverse group of authors, who explore the ways in which those timeless utterances led to the formation of law and ethics, and continue to inform the lives of modern Jews. The contributors represent a broad range of religious beliefs and professional specialization: in chaplaincy, law, technology, journalism, social activism, and the armed services. They live all across the United States and serve many different sorts of communities and constituents; the diversity of these contributors helps give voice to the richness and variety encoded in the Revelation moment, and their voices highlight the ongoing impact and eternal relevance of Torah that flourishes in today’s world.
Although we can fairly assume that God’s words no longer sound the way they did at Sinai, their echoes still continue today. And, in a beautifully ironic turn, millennia after our ancestors hid from the sound of God’s voice at Sinai, today we hold a unique ability to keep that ancient sound alive each time we learn or teach the words of Torah. Our willingness to remain attuned to the hum of a holy presence in the world is what preserves our heritage as a timeless nation of learners. As we continue the process of sacred study that began at a smoke-wreathed mountain in the desert, the work of radical spiritual imagination inscribes itself continuously into our hearts and minds.
Rabbi Oren J. Hayon serves as Senior Rabbi of Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas. He is the editor of Inscribed: Encounters with the Ten Commandments, now available from CCAR Press.