Tikkun Leil

Images of Receiving the Torah

Tikkun Leil

Images of Receiving the Torah

If you were to imagine the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, what picture would come to your mind? 

Rabbi Tabick


If you were to imagine the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, what picture would come to your mind? 

A cloud coming down on mountain in the desert? Thunder and lightning? God speaking in a booming voice? 

All of this has a good basis in the text, as we read on the morning of Shavuot: 

“18 Now mount Sinai was completely covered in smoke, because God descended upon it in fire; and its smoke went up like smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount shook greatly. 19 Then the sound of the horn grew louder and louder - Moses spoke, and God answered him with thunder.” (Exodus 19:19) 

It’s an awe-inspiring image, an overwhelming, terrifying experience. Imagine being there, and having this multi-sensory overload. No wonder that the Israelites respond by saying to Moses: “You speak with us and we will listen, but don’t let God speak to us again or lest we die” (Exodus 20:15). 

This is a hugely evocative image of giving the Torah, but it isn’t the only one that our tradition gives us for this crucial moment. 

Later in the book of Exodus we read that Moses: “took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: 'All that God has said we will we do, and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). This moment has resonated down Jewish history as saying that the Israelites were so eager to accept God’s law, that they were willing to accept the Torah before they even heard what was in it. This moment of “na’aseh v’nishma”, we will do and then we will hear, has come to symbolise our ancestors’ enthusiasm and passionate embrace of the Torah. 

So in just a few chapters, the Torah presents us with two very different psychological pictures of the Israelites. In the first image, the Israelites are overwhelmed and terrified, in the second they are excited and earnest. What do we make of these two radically different depictions? 

It seems to me that both of these stories are trying to reflect a different aspect of the Torah, and how it feels to receive it. 

On the one hand, there is fear and trepidation. After all, if these laws are coming from a divine source then trying to keep them is a huge responsibility. The fire and smoke represent that primal terror of failure, the feeling that we can’t possibly live up to the expectations set before us. 

Maybe you know the feeling? Like when you start a new course, or a new job, and you look at all the things you’re supposed to do and just don’t see how you can possibly measure up. Or if you look at people living more traditionally observant Jewish lives and think there’s no way you can keep everything, so why bother? Or if you feel like you’ve done something amazing to change the world, and someone points out that people still suffer in countless ways (poverty, racism, misogyny and on and on). 

On the other hand, the na’aseh v’nishma model says that you should just jump on in to the deep end. Take the chance, make the shot, go for it. Sign up for the difficult course and see how you go, push yourself to take on new observances, change the world in any way you can. 

But this model has it’s flaws - it risks making light of the responsibility we have in the world. After all, there are problems in the world that are near-insurmountable, and to try to emulate God is a constant challenge. 

The Torah has these two versions of giving the Torah, because this moment combines both of these feelings, a sense of awe and a sense of joy, a sense of trepidation and also of enthusiasm, a feeling that we are like grasshoppers before the enormity of the challenges, and a feeling that we can take on the world and win. 

May all of us learn how to balance these feelings in our lives so that we never stop trying to improve the world. 

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