We are a few days away from Shavuot, marking the re-giving of the Torah and our reliving of this holy event. We tend to focus on words - the sacred words we received and have passed on for generations. And yet, in any close reading of the biblical texts of Sinai, words were actually less significant to the ancient Israelites than the setting itself: the mountain surrounded by desert, the smoke, thunder and thick clouds. The special effects shaped the day.
Reading the above verse casually, one might think that the choice of location for the giving of the Ten Commandments was basically a function of the scenery. The ancient Israelites came into a wilderness, picked a nice spot in front of mountain and set up camp there. The Rashbam, Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, medieval commentator and grandson of the exegete Rashi, reminds us that this was no accident but the very spot indicated much earlier in Exodus. Moses asked God what to say when the people would question his judgment in Egypt: "I will be with you; that shall be your sign that I was who sent you. And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain" (3:12). They did not merely land at a special place; this place was predetermined while the Israelites were still slaves in Egypt.
In other words: location, location, location.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen famously wrote: "What are men to rocks and mountains?" The way you create awe and reverence is to deliver your most dramatic remarks in the most dramatic of places. The combination will result in unforgettable impact.
While we as a people have not climbed every mountain, mountains certainly make dramatic appearances in the Hebrew Bible. Moses stayed on top of a mountain for forty days and nights preparing himself to bring the Ten Commandments to his people. The giving of the Ten Commandments takes place on a mountain, an event we celebrate and relive every year at Shavuot. The curses and blessings of Deuteronomy were given on two mountain tops. Jotham in Judges 9 challenges the people's choice of ruler on top of a mountain ,and Elijah invites the idol worshipping priests on top of a mountain to contest their powers.
Of the mountains mentioned, here are a few of the most famous in the Bible: Horeb, Seir, Gilboa, Hermon, Moriah, Hor, Pisgah, Ebal, Ephraim, Carmel, Gerizim, Sedom, and Tabor. From Mount Zion to the Mount of Olives and then the Judean Mountains, these high protrusions into the sky suggest power and domination, aspiration and mystical heights while producing in those who admire them an acute sense of humility and the fragility of human life. Because mountains offer a sense of touching eternity, a 16th century code of Jewish law recommends that people not pray on mountain tops lest they become swept up in the sense of their own dominance. Prayer is always best accomplished through a sense of our smallness.
Because Sinai was supposed to be imprinted into the conscious DNA of the Jewish people, the event had to be as memorable as possible. Words alone cannot create that. Background counts. Noise counts. Preparation counts. Fear counts. Love counts. Anticipation counts. All of these elements contributed to the imprint. Today, we mistakenly think that study alone will help us return to Sinai, but it was not words alone that characterized the original event. It was words in conjunction with nature, and not just any aspect of nature but its most dramatic elements. "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity" wrote john Muir in Our National Parks.
This Shabbat, the day that leans into Shavuot, we begin reading the book of Numbers - our account of the wilderness years. Between the middle of Exodus and the beginning of Numbers, we realize that to celebrate Shavuot properly, our task is not only to study inside but also to stand outside in awe of the natural universe and to marvel at how nature draws us to God and to embrace higher personal aspirations.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Shavuot.