By Jonathan Zimet

On Shavuot we recall, and re-enact, the revelation
event of our history. There, in the desert, we see a
large group of ex-slaves, traveling by foot. Then,
on just three days notice, they experience something
so awesome that it had to transcend our usual
physical senses. Dark clouds, blinding flashes of
light; deafening voices and silent voices.

The account relates: “V’khol ha-`am ro-im et ha-
kolot v?et ha-lapidim
“, the entire people saw the
thunder (and fires) (Ex. 20:14). Such an experience
is so overwhelming and transcendent that we cannot
make complete sense of it or translate it with our
usual senses. Similar descriptions have been
reported in prophetic visions and in near-death
experiences, where activity in our physical organs is
largely suspended.

Clearly, our people directly encountered God in what
became the transcendent and defining experience in
our history. God engraved a covenant with us that
has given form and content to our people’s
experiences and lives ever since.

Near the end of his life, Moses looked back at this
moment and declared:

V’lo itchem l’vadchem anokhi koret
et ha-brit ha-zot v’et ha-alah ha-zot, ki et asher
yeshno po imanu hayom, . . . v’et asher einenu po
imanu hayom
.” “Not only with you do I make this
covenant, but with all those standing here today, as
well as with those who are not here with us today.”
(Deut. 29:14)

What does that mean? Can a covenant be made for
or with people who do not yet exist, and how can it
be binding on them?

One commentator answered that we are bound by
our ancestors’ covenant because our existence
depended on theirs. This is a simple, existential
reality. We exist only because our parents did. And
in turn their parents, and so on, for what is now well
over one hundred generations.

This comment concerns not just our physical
existence. In addition, each of these generations
passed on a living tradition. And to pass on a living
tradition, they had to actively live the tradition.

Let us go back to that moment at Mount Sinai. God
stated the essence of the covenant shortly before
Moses ascended the mountain: “If you listen to my
voice, and observe and follow it, then you will be my
treasured people.”

God spoke wisely. This was not simply a conditional
promise, but a statement of reality. Only when you
fully live something, does it really sink in for the next

Moreover, each generation has to add to the
tradition. The content of our tradition far exceeds
anything that a one-day event could have
conveyed. We have the rich, full-bodied tradition
that is ours today because people in each generation
developed it. Each of us adds our own unique

  • Some study and interpret texts;
  • Others develop philosophies of God, of Judaism,
    of life itself;
  • Some help create rituals, or expand existing
  • Others add artistic ways of doing these rituals,
    such as music, calligraphy, or dance;
  • Some compose prayers and hymns;
  • While still others weave stories and folklore.

At Mount Sinai, God told us to become
a: “mamlechet kohanim v’goi kadosh“,
a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” (Ex. 19:6).
This is a magnificent statement, and it was a new
concept in religious history. God had wanted
humankind to join as partners in continuing creation
and in building a decent society. God tried twice,
first with Adam, and then with Noah, and was
disappointed both times.

According to our tradition, God then decided to
instead start with just one person, and just one
people. Even the basics of this Covenant – do not
steal; cease from labor one day every week – were
innovations, even revolutionary, at that time.

God in effect told the Israelites: “When I took you
out of slavery, that was not the goal, only the first
step. I want to engage you in a larger mission. If
you agree – and it will take effort – you will become
an `am segula, a special people to me. And if
you live as a kingdom of priests, others in the world
will start imitating. It will gradually rub off.”

By setting an example of elevated moral standards
and conduct, and by living a tradition that shows a
way to create a community and way-of-life with
meaning, then other peoples would start to elevate
themselves, too. Indeed, Sinai has shaped the rest
of the world since then.

* * * * *

How does this all apply to us on this Shavuot, in our

Did we stand at Sinai? Yes.

Does Sinai stand inside of us ? That is up to each of

Because our tradition is not handed down on a silver

We can each help create viable communities by
showing our joy as we live the tradition, by sharing
our own insights and by adding our own spin. If we
put in our effort and time, then our children, our next
generation, will know and live Judaism, and will
experience its joys in its multiple dimensions. They
will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, and they will
experience Sinai.