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Mount Sinai: revelation or inspiration?

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon

It was the greatest moment in our people’s entire history. But what the heck actually happened?

This week we read the Torah portion of Yitro, including the revelation at Mount Sinai. This climactic section includes the enormous experience of receiving the Ten Commandments through the theophany at Sinai, the most direct revelation of all in our tradition. The text is incorporated into just a couple of paragraphs that formed the core of Western ethical and religious thought and
experience ever since.

Clearly our tradition teaches that the greatest moment of connection to God was the ma’amad har Sinai, the event of standing at Sinai, which, if it is a historical event, took place over 3,200 years ago. Our ancestors certainly believed that God communicated directly with them, and that a specific covenant, a moral contract, was created at that spectacular moment.

But in today’s world the very concept of revelation is a challenging one for most of us. Do you personally believe in revelation at all — that is, that God reveals a plan to human beings directly? Skeptics — which include most Jews — can highlight a series of improbabilities in the central tale of this epochal Jewish narrative of revelation. First, are we to actually believe that at Mount Sinai God revealed God’s own essence to us directly? That in some supernatural way, a group of Israelite freed slaves communicated directly with a being much greater than themselves, and that this only happened once, more than 3,000 years ago? And are we also to believe that not only did the Israelites think God connected with them, but also that God spoke actual words, and our ancestors understood them and committed them to memory?

I personally stood on what many believe to be Mount Sinai four years ago on this Shabbat. Whether or not this was really the place where God was revealed to us so long ago? It is a dramatic, powerful, amazing place, and in the growing light of dawn I quietly chanted the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. It was an extraordinary experience of feeling God’s presence in a magnificent place and moment in time.

There are many other ways to view revelation, however. While the Torah sees Sinai as a unique experience, filled with dramatic pronouncements, lightning, thunder, earthquakes and shofars, Jewish tradition has always taught that “each of us stood at Sinai, including all the generations of Jews not yet born.” In other words, we are all participants in revelation in our own way. Just as we all must see ourselves as having come out of Egypt as freed slaves, so we all must come to understand our relationship with God directly. Any direct revelation, God’s will revealed to us for our own lives, must be given to us, and accepted by each of us, directly.

My grandfather, Rabbi and Professor Samuel S. Cohon, had a concept of progressive revelation — that each of us, in every generation, has the ability to conceive of and perceive God in his or her own way. Moses’ generation called it the revelation at Sinai. Our generation might call it divine inspiration, or even creativity, a way to channel the divine energy that flows through our world always, and sometimes gifts us with a spark of greatness or genius.

Is this revelation today, for us? It may be. When we feel the remarkable connection to the universe that allows us to create — to write, to sing, to play music, to dance, to love freely, when we help another person in need — we are experiencing a kind of revelation. In those moments God is revealed to us in a form of holiness we can touch and experience in our own lives.

Revelation may simply mean knowing God’s presence, through beauty, inspiration, and caring. And this essential understanding brings special meaning to everything we do. Isn’t that the purest form of revelation?

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon is also host of “The Too Jewish Radio Show” on KVOI AM1030, www.toojewishradio.com.

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