More than 90 percent of American Jews participate in some sort of seder on Passover in remembrance of the Exodus. Probably less than 10 percent of American Jews commemorate the Sinai revelation on Shavuot.
Not until we correct the imbalance will American Jewish life experience a renaissance.
Religiously speaking, Sinai is the twin peak of the Exodus. Shavuot-Sinai completes the Passover Exodus. The revelation at Sinai turns the values inherent in the liberation event into concrete action that direct daily life.
At Sinai, we are instructed to let the slave go free; to love and care for the widow, orphan and outsider, to give special help for the poor; to act justly in weights and measures — all in memory of the Exodus.
We are told to observe Shabbat; celebrate Passover; eat kosher food; wear tzitzit; put on tefillin; go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; and thus remember the Exodus.
At Sinai, we learned that we are in touch with an infinite force far greater than the human mind can imagine. In listening to God, we learn to believe that life is meaningful. Sinai supplies the interpretive key that teaches us that creation is full of purpose and that we must act on the side of good.
The revelation at Sinai tells us that we are commanded to do so. Doing good is not just a favor on our part. Every human is instructed and accountable to a higher authority; each must take the effort even when the flesh is selfish or the spirit is weak.
From Sinai’s Torah we learn that one is not accidentally born as a Jew, a man, a woman, an American and so on. Rather, to be born as a Jew is to be chosen to witness to the world. Similarly, all human beings are called to use their talents, their capacities to choose life.
Sinai teaches that each of us is singled out to turn our individual fate, lucky or unlucky, healthy or sick, young or old into a destiny that we affirm and live up to; do this and you become a living demonstration of a human life that upgrades the world (tikkun olam).
The Torah teaches that Sinai happens again and again. The Ten Commandments and the initial laws in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 21) were spoken at the foot of Sinai. But the later instructions in Leviticus and in the holiness section are also and equally from Sinai (Rashi, Leviticus 25:1).
Shavuot’s date is hidden in the Torah to teach us that the oral law is authoritative in setting the date of divine revelation. Thus, the rabbinic tradition and the later, ongoing interpretive community also speak from and with the authority of Sinai.
Throughout Jewish history, people went back to Sinai, literally and metaphorically. Moses encountered God and learned his mission at Horeb (Sinai); he returned with his newly liberated people. In his final hours on the plains of Moab at the gateway to Israel, he urgently renewed the covenant.
As he addressed the new generation, they were at Sinai with him (“you stood under the mountain… God spoke to you in the fire… God told you his covenant.” [Deuteronomy 4:11-13]) When Elijah faced a paganized Jewish people and a triumphant Baal worship, he returned to Horeb. After destruction and exile, the rabbis set up the central Shema Yisrael prayer in the daily services as a covenant renewal liturgy so that Jews would experience it every day, as an act of standing at Sinai and accepting the Torah again.
When the Lurianic mystics revitalized Judaism after the expulsion catastrophe, they created a tikkun layl shavuot (a compendium of excerpts from the Scripture and rabbinic sources that constitutes a precis of the whole Torah).
Following their model to this day, people gather in many Orthodox synagogues to study Torah all night. Then, on Shavuot morning, standing at Sinai, they accept the covenant again.
Just as the Exodus occurred again in this generation (in the rebirth of Israel) so must its twin, Sinai, take place anew. All Jews must undertake the journey. Each group can use the recounter to widen its repertoire.
The Orthodox must go back to recapture the message of ongoing application, halachic renewal and the authority of each generation to solve issues of inequality. To sanctify new possibilities raised by modern culture, traditional Jews must practice the Talmudic dictum that “everything that tried and true scholars will innovate in the future was spoken to Moses at Sinai.”
Conservative Jews must go back to Horeb to reconnect to the sense of commandedness and the obligation that the Torah poses.
The Reform must reintegrate Sinai’s demand and the sense of accountability that has been undermined by the excesses in applying the valid principle of autonomy.
Reconstructionists must return to Horeb to encounter the full force of calling, the claim that chosenness poses to the Jewish people.
However they respond, each group will be strengthened by listening to the voices from Sinai that have been muted in their present way of hearing.
How then shall we go back to Sinai? Here are two proposals. World Jewry is working on Jerusalem 3000, a commemoration/celebration of Jerusalem’s sacred presence over three millennia of Jewish history. On the assumption that the Exodus (and Sinai) occurred in 1250 B.C.E., let world Jews organize a symbolic return to Sinai for the year 2000. At Sinai 3250, Jews will renew the covenant with God, with the generations, with each other.
For that occasion, let some Jewish group create another tikkun layl shavuot – – a compendium bringing the Torah and sacred texts down to the 20th century, a summary of the Torah that touches the heart of all Jews. Then let a world Jewish conference (in Jerusalem?) rafity the covenant and launch a decade of rededication to Jewish faith and life.
Until then, the yearly Shavuot experience should be the moment when each one takes family, friends and self to the top of the mountain to see — with the eyes of Torah — all the earth as God’s Promised Land; the land of life and love