Search online for “Mount Sinai” and Google Maps will swiftly point you to a marker in Jabal Mousa, Arabic for Mount Moses, located in the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt.
Consult with a biblical scholar or geographer and you will hear about other locations such as Mount Sin Bishar and Mount Helal in the peninsula, Jebel al-Madhbah at Petra in Jordan, Jabal al-Lawz in northwest Saudi Arabia, and Hashem el-Tarif near the Israeli city of Eilat.
But review the Torah itself, the actual document given by G-d on Mount Sinai, and you will find no reference to the exact location. You will learn what happened when G-d spoke directly to the Israelites, but not where. What is more, the many commentators on Torah seldom discuss it either.
This anomaly was troubling for an Israeli soldier named Dr. Moshe Berhab, and he examined the issue further when he had the opportunity to visit the Jabal Mousa location in 1956. This was after Israel captured the Sinai during the Suez Crisis, when Egypt had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipments.
Berhab was excited to stand on the ground where our forefathers gathered some 3,300 years ago. He was possibly walking on the same earth where our people became a nation and received the Ten Commandments.
Upon climbing up the mountain, he expected to feel spiritual enlightenment or divine energy. Instead, he felt none of that and was left with deep disappointment. Upon his return home, he wrote a letter to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, in search of an explanation.
The Rebbe wrote back a letter (published in Igros Kodesh 14, page 495) alluding to the fact the word Torah is rooted in the Hebrew word hora’ah, meaning instruction and a roadmap on how to live life.
That is why it is called the Torah of life and the eternal Torah, the Rebbe explained. This means that it is an eternal teaching that is binding for every Jew in every generation at any time and location.
Had the Torah been given in an urban and perhaps more appropriate setting such as the holy city of Jerusalem or Hebron, it could have been reduced to a specific class in society, period and space.
Instead, it was given on a mountain surrounded by open land, to teach that everyone has equal access to follow its timeless wisdom and the right to practice its divine teachings. Once the Torah was given, Mount Sinai went on to live through us.
“The importance of Mount Sinai is the Torah that we received upon it, once the Torah becomes part of our life,” the Rebbe wrote. “But the physical identification of the mountain does not have any special significance.”
My friend, author Rabbi Eli Wolff, commented that if you are asked what is the exact location of Mount Sinai, you can easily point to its precise location: Your own heart. That is where your soul resides and your soul is intrinsically bound to the Torah.
On the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, commemorating the date when G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, the custom is for every man, woman and child to hear the reading of the Ten Commandments at synagogue. Why? Because we need Mount Sinai there and you are the only one who can bring it.
Rabbi Yehuda Ceitlin is the outreach director of Chabad Tucson, and associate rabbi of Congregation Young Israel of Tucson.