We are wandering in the wilderness. We have been wandering, not just for the
weeks to get to Sinai. Although Shavuot marks the date when we were given the Torah, it
is far from the end of our travels.
Perhaps wilderness in the time of the Israelites was not so different than now. Not
a desert of nothingness, but a place where with every need satisfied, the Israelites took
God for granted. They thought they understood God..
And so we read the Torah portion:
Exodus 20 15-17:
15. And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the sound of the
shofar, and the mountain smoking; and the people saw it, and shook, and stood far away.
16. And they said to Moses, Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with
us, lest we die.
17. And Moses said to the people, Fear not; for God has come to test you, and that awe of
Him will be upon your faces, so that you do not sin.
øåàéí àú ä÷åìåú. øåàéï àú äðùîò, ùàé àôùø ìøàåú áî÷åí àçø
That our verse teaches that the people "saw the sounds, which would be impossible
All this time, and after all these miracles, Israel still had the sense that God is somehow
not that big a deal. If we think of God at all, we think of God a a kind of big parent, or
maybe some amorphous provider. It's clear from the Torah, that our ancestors were just
like us. They thought about God in terms of what they knew already, or didn't think
much about God, except when they were in fear. They thought they knew God, what God
was. So the time comes for the giving of Torah, and finally, revealed to them a bit of
God's true self. A self which is wholly unlike anything a human being can comprehend. A
self which causes people to be able to see the sounds that God spoke.
Finally, it sinks in. God is not a human being. God is not to be comprehended as
one human understands another, and yet, God still loves us, and desires a relationship
with us. How does a human nation relate to something so utterly beyond our
comprehension? How can it be possible? How can we even understand what such a
relationship might be? And it is this realization that causes the people to shake with fear
and awe and to say to Moses: Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with
us, lest we die. That is, You, Moshe, are a human being, at least. We don't know how it is
that you can understand God's visual speech, but when you speak we hear it, like we hear
any human speech, so please, stand between us and God, because this God, we suddenly
understand, is not human, and the utter alien-ness of God could kill us.
but Moshe, no doubt smiling to himself, told them not to be afraid àÇìÎúÌÄéøÈàåÌ
ëÌÄé ìÀáÇÍòÂáåÌø ðÇñÌåÉú àÆúÀëÆí- Fear not; for God has come to test you, and that awe of Him
will be upon your faces, so that you do not sin. Their awe is what God is seeking. Rashi
explains Moshe's words:
)ìáòáåø ðñåú àúëí. ìâãì àúëí áòåìí, ùéöà ìëí ùí áàåîåú ùäåà áëáåãå ðâìä òìéëí ( ðñåú.
ìùåï äøîä åâãåìä, ëîå äøéîå ðñ )éùòéä ñá, é.(, àøéí ðñé )ùí îè, ëá.(, åëðñ òì äâáòä )ùí
ì, éæ.(,: ë ùäåà æ÷åó:
He says, Don't read nasot as "test" but as "exalt". God has raised you up through your
awe. When you finally understand that God is something other, that is when you finally
will have gained knowledge greater than that of other nations. Moshe continues: åÌáÇÍòÂáåÌø
úÌÄäÀéÆä éÄøÀàÈúåÉ òÇìÎôÌÀðÅéëÆí ìÀáÄìÀúÌÄé úÆÍçÁèÈÍàåÌ: and that awe of Him will be upon your
faces, so that you do not sin.
åáòáåø úäéä éøàúå. òì éãé ùøàéúí àåúå éÈøàåÌé åÌîÀàËéÌÈí, úãòå ëé àéï
æåìúå, åúéøàå îôðéå:
That is, by your having seen this fearsome, awesome speech, which confused your limited
human senses, left you stumbling around in confusion, holding your aching heads and
afraid because your body appears to have betrayed you, it has shown you that your senses
are limited, revealed to you that there are experiences in the universe by which your
senses are overwhelmed, made clear to you that our senses don't see the full range of
color or hear the full range of sound, that the particles and waves that make up the
universe have frequencies which we can't access, and when we try, they confound us.
We are wandering in the desert still because we do not know God.
We think we know God-
In the daily shacharit, we say v’erastich li…I betroth you… and you shall know God. We
are betrothed but we do not know God -yet.
Today is Shavuot. We stand at the mountain. Do we want to know God?
God is so utterly alien that to know God means putting aside ourselves entirely.
Ridding ourselves of our desires and attempting to experience God… there is only one
way to do it, and we have the instructions. It is the Torah, written and oral: tanakh and
Maimonides tells us that we can know God only for what God is not: any attempt to
describe God in human language by necessity will fail, so how can we know God?
We can know God through God’s actions: God acting in the world. We can know God
through relationship: tefila( prayer), and study -as one rabbi said: when I pray I speak to
God, when I study, God speaks to me
We can know God by living with God day in and day out, just as one comes to know a
beloved through immersing oneself in one’s life with the beloved, Through the
persistence of every day life, not just special occasions. One can't know the ocean by
dipping in one's toes at the beach: you have to spend your life going into its depths. It
must be feared, because it is dangerous, and its beauty gazed at. To know a few of its
creatures hardly counts as knowledge, and yet to know everything is beyond us - still if
we decide to live with the ocean at our feet every day, go out to sea every morning, eat it's
fruit and bathe in its waters, maybe, just maybe, we can begin to understand something
small about the ocean.
And if the ocean, that tiny creation on one planet in a single solar system is so amazingly
complex and beyond us, than surely to know God requires at least as much dedication as
to know the ocean.
Do we want to know God?
Are we up to the job?
It’s not easy. It means commitment: Commitment and obligation.
It means staying the course when it’s boring, or unpopular.
It means remembering God not only in foxholes, not only at weddings, and not even only
on shabbat, but at every morsel of food we put into our mouths, remembering that God
brought it to us and made us able to eat it, and so making sure that the food is holy: not
eating milk and meat together, not eating treif meat, it means blessing the food before we
put it in your mouth, and thanking God for it after we have eaten and been satisfied.
It means being Jewish requires us to do things differently than other people, to be holy in
all our actions, and sometime doing things that are just about us and God, and not about
anyone else, like Shabbat and holidays.
We stand at the foot of the mountain today. We have the chance to meet God face to face.
Will we take it?
Can we be holy?