The Bible’s description of the shuddering of the people at Mount Sinai reflects a deep truth about how moments of revelatory insight can be frightening.
At the age of 18, I smoked marijuana for the first time, sucking in hit after hit at the encouragement of two more experienced friends. At first, nothing happened, and I started to wonder if there was really anything to it. But then, all of a sudden, I lost the ability to recognize my own voice. A sickening sense of unease began to rise in me. My friends took me outside to walk it off. As we staggered through the midnight darkness that shrouded the familiar streets of our hometown, a warm wave began to pulse through my body. When it crashed over the crown of my head, I thought I heard the screech of an eagle. My feverish, religiously infused young imagination began to tell me I had been touched by God. What followed was terror, a dissociation of consciousness, a rift in self-awareness and the nature of what I knew to be real so intense that I fell into seizures of panic. The aftershocks would remain with me for several years. Even now, almost three decades later, I can still feel a tremor as I write this, which may explain why I don’ have a hard time understanding how the Israelites at Sinai found the experience of revelation so god-awfully frightening.
While on Simchat Torah we celebrate the cultural practice of reading and rereading our holy books, on Shavuot we recall the giving of the Torah itself—the very intrusion of the sacred into the human realm. We emphasize this point through liturgical recitation of biblical texts—the revelation at Mount Sinai, the theophany of Ezekiel, the book of Ruth—each in its own way depicting an emergence of the Divine, as presence or as message, into mortal affairs. I have noted a contemporary tendency to envision such revelation as loving and wonderful, maybe under the influence of the gentler spiritual modalities that are more palatable to people well-situated enough to choose their own religions. There is some valence of this sensibility in Jewish tradition: for example, the understanding of Shavuot as hieros gamos, the symbolic wedding of God and the Jewish people, with the Torah serving as ketubah (marriage contract). But if so, it’s pretty clear that one member of the original wedding party had the jitters. “All the people, seeing the thunder, the lighting, the sound of the shofar, the mountain smoking,” the book of Exodus relates, “trembled with fear and stood back. They said to Moses: ‘Whatever you say to us we’ll listen to, but don’t let God speak to us, or we’ll die!”
The crafters of this story seem intent on bringing out a quality of revelation that, for our part, we may tend to overlook or be too timid to recognize. It is always possible that their god was just trying to make a grandiose impression, in which case the whole business reeks of a blustering machismo we would do well to set aside. But this portrayal works, too, as an illustration of the fact that new reality does not always, or even frequently, come to us with beneficial intent. We are just as likely to experience it as the ripping away of a veil and the insertion of a dreadfully “inconvenient truth” into the smug rhythm of common habit. I know, for example, that this is how I experience the ecological dispatches I read on a regular basis—from the IPCC report indicating that our days under the regime of a stable climate are numbered, to the latest staggering figures on species extinction. These facts hit hard, revealing as illusory the premise of my well-being and raising an existential dread such as I can imagine Ezekiel felt as he sat by the waters of Babylon. “I saw what looked like gleaming, amber colored fire,” he said of the strange creature that had come to interrupt his reverie. “Downward from what appeared to be his waist, I saw what looked like fire…When I saw it, I fell on my face.”
But Shavuot does not simply convey revelation as numinousness—as the encounter with an overwhelming and awe-inspiring reality—for its own sake. God appears in smoke and fire to deliver a message. In terror, there is something to learn, if we can manage it, though first the awareness of the need for such a lesson may result in its own complement of aversion and fear. This is the dissonant struggle of a mind stuck in the zone of what it wishes it didn’t know, saying to itself, “Now that I know what I didn’t know before, I have to do something, or live in the shame of not doing anything, or in the despair and futility of feeling there is nothing to be done, even while I continue to know what I now know–none of which is preferable to the blissful ignorance I cannot regain.” It is something like what Ezekiel’s fellow prophet, Jeremiah, meant when he said: “I could not celebrate; with your hand on me I sat by myself, for you filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unending, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” It is both an existential and a moral burden, an awareness that, after such hard moments of vision, there is no going back. It is the dismaying sight of the wilderness stretching before you on the other side of the smoldering mountain, such as frequently made the Israelites long for the whips of their Egyptian masters.
To work properly, however, a holiday of revelation must not simply bring the dilemma of hard truth to our consciousness, but also teach us some pattern of meaningful engagement with what is fearful. There’s another story in the Bible about approaching the holy mountain, a counterpoint to the narrative of Exodus which I wish we read on Shavuot as well, because for me it provides this missing piece of the puzzle. We read in the book of Kings about Elijah’s flight from his pursuers into the desert, where he comes upon a shelter in the very place where Moses stood to receive the Ten Commandments. A voice says: “Go outside, and stand on the mountain before Adonai.” As before, there is wild weather—wind, fire and earthquake—but this time, the text goes out of its way to tell us that none of these are true manifestations of the Divine. They are simply tumult—storm and stress. We discover, instead, that what is truly sacred comes quietly when all these things have passed. “After the fire came a still, small voice. When he heard it, Elijah covered his face with his cloak, and stepped out and stood at the entrance to the cave. Then a voice came to him.”
Come to think of it, maybe this same inspiration does relay itself through a Shavuot story—the one about the Moabite who leaves behind her father’s house for an unfamiliar road. Ruth stands, too, at a moment of tumult, wondering, in the immortal words of Mick Jones, “Should I stay or should I go?” The revelation that comes to her, like Elijah’s, is subtle, and, also likewise, cuts through the paralysis and indecision of overwrought emotion. Looking into the face of someone she loves, she says, “Where you go, I will go.” Knowing that she will never see the world the same way again, she commits to walking onward, vibrant with the tremor of the still small voice that is the co-efficient of the terror she has allowed herself to face, into a new covenant.
Shavuot, after all, is a hieros gamos, a sacred wedding. But it isn’t the frolic of infatuated children or even the fevered high of 18-year-old neophytes. Rather, it is the marriage of truth and purpose that must take place in the mature heart if its bearer is to brave revelation and keep on walking.