Home > Divrei Torah > Shavuot


May 24, 2012

Shavuot: A Voice that Does Not Cease

By Rabbi Len Levin

“The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:20)

I love blintzes and cheesecake. The rabbis based the custom of eating dairy foods on Shavuot on the verse: “Honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song of Songs 4:11). But what are we celebrating? What really happened? Did God really speak to the Israelites, as it describes in the Bible? And how?

“Moses and Elijah did not ascend to heaven, nor did the Glory descend to earth.” Is this a modern skeptic speaking? No, this is the dictum of the second-century Rabbi Yose, recorded in the rabbinic midrash Mekhilta on Exodus (Bahodesh 4), and cited in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s major work Heavenly Torah As Refracted through the Generations (page 350).

It was Heschel’s amazing achievement to show how much flexibility the Talmudic rabbis exercised in interpreting the Biblical narratives of revelation, and the whole concept of revelation in the tradition.

At the core of the idea of revelation is the notion that a major dimension of our existence-call it “normativity,” “ethics,” “ought-ness,” “commandedness”-is rooted in something greater than ourselves, which we call “God.” We do not come up with “do not murder” or “love your neighbor like yourself” on a whim or out of personal preference. It is rooted in being itself, and we cannot escape it or wish it away.

At some moment in our history, we came collectively to the realization of this awesome fact of our existence. When that happened, we arrived at moral maturity. Our history as responsible human beings  “ more specifically, as a morally covenanted nation developing our collective sense of “ought-ness” in a Jewish vein, in covenant with God  “ can be dated from that moment. The Sinai narrative of the Bible is a dramatization of that moment of covenantal realization and consciousness.

The details are a matter for endless discussion, to which Heschel directs our attention. Did Moses go up to heaven to receive the Torah? Did the Torah exist as a primeval entity, black fire on white fire, from the beginning of creation, serving God as blueprint for creating the world? (What kind of Torah must that have been?) Did God speak to Israel from heaven, or come down onto Mount Sinai? Was the voice that spoke a celestial voice or an earthly, human voice (perhaps Moses’ voice)? Did the prophets take dictation from God, or did they receive a wordless inspiration and express it in their own words?

And what is “Torah”? Was the Torah that was communicated at Sinai the entire five books that we have, or only the general principles-such as the Ten Commandments? Were the specifics transmitted by God in one fell swoop, or did they emerge in dribs and drabs, with the input of human initiative, during the years in the wilderness wanderings and maybe even beyond?

The modern Jew is likely to experience Torah as an open-ended legacy that is still evolving today. When Rosenzweig and Buber discussed the meaning of Sinaitic revelation in their correspondence in 1924, they cited the rabbinic midrash on the phrase bayom ha-zeh (“on this day-today”) in Exodus 19:1, which expressed their conviction that revelation takes place even today, confirming the reality of past revelation but adding new content to it.

In Heavenly Torah, Heschel shows that this sense of open-ended development is not foreign to the classic rabbinic tradition but is rooted in it. Deuteronomy 5:19 describes the utterance of the divine voice of Sinai as kol gadol ve-lo yasaf. The Hebrew here is ambiguous. The context of the verse suggests that it means: “a mighty voice, but it did not continue”-in other words, a one-time finite utterance, speaking for all time. But the midrash reverses the meaning: “a mighty voice, and it did not cease.” In other words, the divine voice is alive in the world today, if we would only listen to it (Heavenly Torah, p. 671).

The holiday of Shavuot commemorates the second crucial event in forming the Jewish people’s identity. The first was Pesah, the Exodus form slavery to freedom. The second is receiving Torah, progressing from negative freedom (that we are nobody’s slaves) to positive freedom (what are we going to do to serve God?). But the receiving of Torah did not only occur at one time in the past. It is up to us to continue tuning in to God’s voice today, to bring its message up-to-date and extend it into the future.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and assisted in the translation and editing of Heschel’s Heavenly Torah.