B’MIDBAR – SHAVUOT

FRIDAY, May 18th

This Sunday we celebrate and reenact the experience of standing at Mt. Sinai and receiving the Torah by reading the passage in Shemot Ch. 20 which describes how God revealed Himself to Bnei Yisrael and spoke the 10 commandments.

For most of us, the idea that the content of God’s revelation to the people at Sinai, was the 10 “commandments” is so familiar we don’t give it a second thought, but there is something truly remarkable here. Were I not already familiar with the text, I might have expected that what the revelation the people would receive at Sinai would be some cosmic truth about the nature of the Universe, or a detailed vision of the nature of God, perhaps a prophecy of what would happen in times to come.  But what we find instead, besides the most basic and important truth of God’s existence, is some very simple instructions, not of how to achieve enlightenment or connection to the divine, but of how to behave in the world.  That these instructions very quickly go from the overtly “religious” (e.g., don’t worship idols, don’t take God’s name in vain) to the mundane and interpersonal (e.g., don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery), to finally the quite difficult and internal instruction not to covet our neighbor’s possessions or relationships, which would seem to be placing limits even on how we think.

Without getting into the specifics of each commandment, or the question of why these ten instructions, out of all the 613 commandments of the Torah were the ones spoken from the mountain and written down on the tablets, we can learn something very important from this.  Revelation, i.e., knowledge of God, at its most profound and deepest level, is not about leaving this world behind, but about learning how to move through the world, not only in relationship to God (bein Adam LaMakom) but also in relation to other people (bein Adam L’chaveiro).

Revelation at Sinai is the archetype of the human encounter with the Divine, and therefore of religious experience in general.  The power of a religious experience, be it one of prayer, of Torah study, or simply singing Shabbat Zemirot, is measured not in how beautiful it was, or how excited or ecstatic we felt, while we were experiencing it.  The power of a religious moment, an encounter with God, is measured in its impact on our behavior, including, perhaps especially our behavior towards others.  A so-called religious experience that doesn’t actually help us become better people, more humble, more kind, more reverent, is simply an escape.

When I was in Israel, once Rabbi Levi Lauer, founder of the Israeli NGO ATZUM, came to speak to a class I was in, and he said that the way to measure our spiritual growth is simply to ask someone close to us, someone we live with and interact with day to day, such as a spouse or a roommate “am I a kinder person than I used to be?”  If the answer is no, says R’ Lauer, we are going down the wrong path.

I think often when we evaluate a religious experience, we use metrics that are primarily aesthetic and self-focused— “was it fun? Was it boring? Was it beautiful?  How long was it? How did it make me feel? How many people were there?”  These are all criteria with which we might assess any secular cultural event, be it a play, a movie or simply a social gathering.  For a religious event or experience, far more important are the questions “Did it change me?  Did it help me to become a better person?”

May the revelation we experience this Shavuot be one that inspires and empowers us to change our behavior and become better people.