A few years ago, I read a New Age book titled Surfing the Himalayas. The story begins with the protagonist snow-boarding down a mountain. As he comes careening down this mountain — as fate, serendipity or bashert would have it — he collides with a Buddhist monk. And thus begins, you've guessed it: his spiritual journey. "A lot of interesting things happen at mountains," our New Age ba'al teshuvah proclaims. But friends, we, the Jewish people, know a thing or two about mountains. And so, I invite you to join me as I attempt to make a mountain out of a … mountain.
Vay'daber Hashem El Moshe B'har Sinai Leimor: "And Hashem spoke these words to Moses at Mount Sinai saying … " begins this week's Torah reading. Indeed, a lot of interesting things happen at mountains. But why is our Torah concerned with the location of revelation? If Sinai were a REIT (a real estate investment trust limited partnership), I could very well understand that "location, location, location" is essential for determining the net asset value. But is this an operative and necessary principle in our spiritual portfolio?
I would submit to you that when the Torah identifies the locus of revelation, it has less to do with geography and more to do with orientation. Or put differently, I believe that our tradition is saying something unequivocal about the nature of being a Jew. If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then Jews are from Sinai.
The Midrash suggests that Sinai was the moment and the place where the Jewish people entered into a marriage with the Almighty. And does not a marriage require fidelity and mutuality? A sacred covenant was entered into between the Holy One and the people Israel. We have a word for this — it's called a brit. The terms of the brit are rather straightforward. God will be God, and we are to be the Jewish people.
Yes, interesting things happen at mountains. The Torah mentions three explicit names for Sinai which, I believe, stunningly demonstrate this mutuality and partnership. They are: Har HaElokim, mountain of God; Har Sinai, mountain of Sinai; and Har Choreiv, literally, mountain of the sword. Why these names?
Listen to the words of the Midrash. The "mountain of God" is invoked not to indicate the location of revelation, but to indicate the fact of revelation. God revealed himself. But where did God choose to reveal himself? And this is important — at Sinai. Sinai, the rabbis tell us means: sana et ha'el'yonim v'ahav et ha' tach'tonim: God, as it were, "hated the celestial realm and loved the lower realm."
In other words, Sinai means that God wants this world, this sentient existence of flesh and blood, of emotion and passion, to be the world that is elevated through our sacred deeds and ennobled through our soulful endeavors. And how can this be achieved? By the Jewish people remaining faithful to our part of the contract through a commitment to and engagement with Torah. And if we do so, then the Torah itself will become our protector — our cherev, our "sword," as it were. In a word, the relationship between God and the people Israel is synergistic, symbiotic and, dare I say, Sinai-itic.
May I share with you a favorite story? Two friends are speaking, one turns his head to the other and says, "I don't understand. Why is there hunger in God's world? Why is there injustice in God's world? Why is there oppression in God's world?"
His friend responds: "Why are you asking me? Why don't you ask God?"
To which his friend sheepishly replies: "Because I'm afraid that God will ask me these same questions."
As we continue our journey to Shavuot and the piece of real estate called Sinai, let's recall that, indeed, "a lot of interesting things happen at mountains."
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.