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Shavuot 5780

May 28, 2020

A D’var Torah for Shavuot
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover (’11)

Most of us experience moments of transcendence in our lives. A moment of transcendence could be the first moment you realized you were in love with your partner. Or the way you felt at the birth of a child, or the first time you brought home a child you adopted. Perhaps it is a moment of communing with nature—realizing the power and beauty of the ocean, or climbing a mountain, or realizing the vastness of the universe while looking at the moon and the stars. Perhaps it is a religious moment—finding a new truth in the Torah, or suddenly realizing that a prayer speaks directly to you. It could be a big life moment or a small one, but you remember it because it impacted your soul, your spiritual self. It was a connection to something. I would call it a connection to God; others might call it a connection to the universe. Martin Buber of blessed memory would call it an I-Thou moment, a moment of communion with the Divine Thou.

I’d like to invite you to take a moment to think of a transcendent moment in your life, when you were deeply touched by something and felt that sense of connection.

I’d like to share with you one of mine, which happens to be connected to religion. I converted to Judaism in 1999, after having regularly attended synagogue as a member of a congregation for about three years. As a Reform Jew, I don’t habitually engage in full prayer services daily, so the first time I prayed the morning prayers for daily miracles was on Rosh Hashana of 1999. In the Reform prayerbook, one of those is phrased, “Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the universe, who made me a Jew.” I had always skipped over that one before, when I wasn’t Jewish. I had a profound spiritual moment that year when I realized, “Yes! God made me a Jew!” It was very moving; a moment of revelation.

When I tell this story, it feels very flat to me. I can tell you what happened, I can tell you a little of how it felt, but my words are inadequate. That’s because moments of revelation, which is what moments of transcendence are, cannot be described in words. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, wrote, “It is a fact of profound significance that we sense more than we can say. When we stand face to face with the grandeur of the world, any formulation of thought appears as an anticlimax. It is in the awareness that the mystery which we face is incomparably deeper than what we know that all creative thinking begins” (God in Search of Man, p. 115).

He explains, “Knowledge is not the same as awareness, and expression is not the same as experience. By proceeding from awareness to knowledge we gain in clarity and lose in immediacy. What we gain in distinctness by going from experience to expression we lose in genuineness. The difference becomes a divergence when our preconceptual insights are lost in our conceptualizations, when the encounter with the ineffable is forfeited in our symbolizations, when the dogmatic formulation becomes more important than the religious situation” (ibid., p. 116).

What he’s saying, in case it’s not immediately clear, is that there is a difference between experiencing revelation and describing it, and we must remember that, or we lose the meaning of revelation, because the meaning of revelation is in experiencing it, not talking about it.

When we talk about revelation in Judaism, we’re often talking about God revealing Godself at Mt. Sinai. All that we know about what happened at Mt. Sinai, what that experience of revelation was like, is its description in words, in our Torah. This is a problem because, as I just said, the meaning of revelation comes through in the experiencing of it, not in the describing of it in words. Because words will always be inadequate to describe the experience. So it is important to remember that the account of the revelation at Mt. Sinai was written down by people trying to describe a transcendent experience.

This week on Shavuot, when we celebrate that revelation at Mt. Sinai, let us commit ourselves to becoming more open to revelation ourselves, that we too may experience a taste of what the Israelite experience at Mt. Sinai was. In the Mt. Sinai story, there are two kinds of experiences. One is of the blaring of horns, of thunder, fire, and earthquake. This is an opening up of the soul to revelation through terror. The loud, dramatic experience is a wake-up call.

We read a very different description of what happened at Sinai in Midrash Exodus Rabbah:

Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, not one of the ofanim [wheel angels, as in Ezekial’s vision of the chariot] stirred a wing, not one of the seraphim [another kind of angel] said, “Holy, holy, holy!” The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak – the whole world was hushed into breathless silence. It was then the voice went forth: “I am Adonai your God.” (Exodus Rabbah 29:9)

This is a different prelude to revelation. It is much quieter, meditative.

Revelation is not something that can be predicted, and it cannot be planned. We can, however, open ourselves up so that we are more likely to experience revelation. We might do this through meditation, or by weakening our will. What I mean by “weakening our will” is putting ourselves in situations when the normal cognitive processes are subverted. In Judaism, we have traditions that affect our cognitive processes, making us more open to revelation.

One is fasting, which weakens us physically through hunger. Another, connected with Shavuot, is sleep deprivation—we traditionally stay up all night studying. My experience of that is that at about 3 am my brain starts working differently and I begin thinking about things in new ways and having revelations. A third way, also connected with Shavuot, and which I already mentioned in passing, is study of the Torah. Immersing ourselves in Torah helps us see our lives and our world differently, leading sometimes to moments of revelation.

We are not limited to talking about revelation, and if we want to have a true and deeply meaningful experience of our Judaism, we cannot only talk about revelation. We must open ourselves up to experiencing it. The Torah tells us, “And not with you alone will I make this covenant and this oath; But with the one who stands here with us this day before the Eternal our God, and also with the one who is not here with us on this day” (Deuteronomy 29:13-14).

That means the covenant is for us as well; Sinai is for us as well; revelation is for us as well. Let us open our souls to experiencing it.
Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) has taught Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of B’ShERT: Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple in Brooklyn, NY.