Telling the Story of Sinai

Story #1: A Freely Available Resource

Many Rabbinic sources ask the question: Why did revelation happen in the wilderness? Why not have this momentous event occur in the Land of Israel? The Midrash below is one of many that focuses the importance of Torah as something that is ownerless and open to all, like the wilderness.

(ז) וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל משֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי (במדבר א, א), לָמָּה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי...אֶלָּא מָה אֵלּוּ חִנָּם לְכָל בָּאֵי הָעוֹלָם כָּךְ דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה חִנָּם הֵם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (ישעיה נה, א): הוֹי כָּל צָמֵא לְכוּ לַמַּיִם.

דָּבָר אַחֵר, וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל משֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, אֶלָּא כָּל מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה עַצְמוֹ כַּמִּדְבָּר, הֶפְקֵר, אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לִקְנוֹת אֶת הַחָכְמָה וְהַתּוֹרָה, לְכָךְ נֶאֱמַר: בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי.

(7) "And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness" (Numbers 1:1). Why the Sinai Wilderness? Just as [fire, water, and wilderness] are free to all the inhabitants of the world, so too are the words of Torah free to them, as it says in Isaiah 55:1, "Oh, all who are thirsty, come for water... even if you have no money."

Another explanation: "And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Wilderness" — Anyone who does not make themselves ownerless like the wilderness cannot acquire the wisdom and the Torah. Therefore it says, "the Sinai Wilderness."

1) The first part of this midrash makes an analogy between Torah and the wilderness, but takes for granted that we understand the similarities. Why do you think it is important that the Torah be freely available for all? What is the spiritual significance of such an idea?

2) The second part of the Midrash explains that just as the wilderness is ownerless, so too should a person be "ownerless" to acquire knowledge. What does it mean to make yourself ownerless, and why does it help you study Torah?

3) What are the resources that are freely available in your world, and how do you think that shapes your attitude towards those resources?

The idea that Torah is there for the taking, for anyone who wishes, shapes a vision of Torah as something open and accessible. We know that many people do not feel that way; ancient texts are often seen as esoteric and hard to engage with. If we believe that Torah is truly open to all, how might that shift the way we talk about it, study it, and share it? Maybe we would include Torah in more areas of our lives, or perhaps feel more comfortable telling others about ideas, insights, or Torah encounters that we experience. And perhaps the quest to be "ownerless" challenges us to examine the other demands that lay claim to our attention and our time, or even to confront the voice inside our head that tells us we "can't" or "wouldn't want to" spend time with Torah. Our celebration of the revelation is a chance to tell ourselves a new story about our ability to access Torah.

Story #2: Coercion

The Talmudic sources quoted below tell us that the People of Israel were forced to accept the Torah at Sinai. Their desire for Torah - or lack thereof - was not relevant to what happened. There's no indication in the Biblical text that they resisted, but these sections of the Talmud say that it wouldn't have mattered, because God wasn't taking no for an answer.

ויתיצבו בתחתית ההר אמר רב אבדימי בר חמא בר חסא מלמד שכפה הקדוש ברוך הוא עליהם את ההר כגיגית ואמר להם אם אתם מקבלים התורה מוטב ואם לאו שם תהא קבורתכם אמר רב אחא בר יעקב מכאן מודעא רבה לאורייתא

The Torah says, “And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the lowermost part of the mount” (Exodus 19:17). Rabbi Avdimi bar Ḥama bar Ḥasa said: the Jewish people actually stood beneath the mountain, and the verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, overturned the mountain above the Jews like a tub, and said to them: If you accept the Torah, excellent, and if not, there will be your burial. Rav Aḥa bar Ya’akov said: From here there is a substantial caveat to the obligation to fulfill the Torah. The Jewish people can claim that they were coerced into accepting the Torah, and it is therefore not binding.

1) If you click to open this source in Sefaria, you can click on the verse that is quoted and check it out in context. You'll see that it is a pretty unremarkable statement in the Torah; it seems the people were standing at the foot of the mountain. It is a definitely a choice to read it as saying that they were underneath Mt. Sinai. Why do you think the rabbis would read the story this way? What is there to be gained from saying that the giving of the Torah was coerced?

2) Why is the idea that we were forced to accept the Torah a "substantial caveat" to the obligation to fulfill mitsvot? Why should it matter if we were forced?

This source expresses a fundamental tension over the way humans experience choice. On the one hand, the ability to choose freely may give us a greater sense of agency and ownership over those choices.

(דברים לג, ב) ויאמר ה' מסיני בא וזרח משעיר למו וכתיב (חבקוק ג, ג) אלוה מתימן יבוא וגו' מאי בעי בשעיר ומאי בעי בפארן א"ר יוחנן מלמד שהחזירה הקב"ה על כל אומה ולשון ולא קבלוה עד שבא אצל ישראל וקבלוה אלא הכי אמרי כלום קיבלנוה ולא קיימנוה ועל דא תברתהון אמאי לא קבלתוה אלא כך אומרים לפניו רבש"ע כלום כפית עלינו הר כגיגית ולא קבלנוה כמו שעשית לישראל

The Lord came from Sinai, and rose from Seir unto them” (Deuteronomy 33:2), and it is written: “God comes from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran” (Habakkuk 3:3). And the Sages asked: What did God require in Seir and what did He require in Paran? The Torah was not given in those locations. And Rabbi Yoḥanan says: This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, took the Torah around to every nation and those who speak every language, such as the Edomites in Seir and the Ishmaelites in Paran, but they did not accept it, until He came to the Jewish people and they accepted it. If the other nations all rejected the Torah, how can they excuse themselves by claiming that it was never offered to them? Rather, this is what they say: Did we accept the Torah and then not fulfill its mitzvot? The Gemara asks: But this itself serves as the refutation of their own claim, as one can respond: Why didn’t you accept it? Rather, this is what the nations of the world say before Him: Master of the Universe, did You overturn the mountain above us like a basin, and we still did not accept the Torah, as You did for the Jewish people?

1) What is the value of coercion, according to this text?

2) In reflecting on your own experiences, when is being forced to do something a positive experience, and when is it negative?

Coercion and choice are themes that run through Rabbinic interpretations of the revelation at Sinai. They also have broader significance in Jewish thought as it relates to obligation and mitzvot. Search for "coercion" on Sefaria to learn more, and explore Sefaria's new Topics Feature to surface texts related to themes and ideas that interest you.

Story #3: New Torah is (Re)created Every Day

Revelation is often presented as a continuous process, and one that can only take place if we engage and search for new meaning.

ביום הזה. בְּרֹאשׁ חֹדֶשׁ; לֹא הָיָה צָרִיךְ לִכְתֹּב אֶלָּא בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא, מַהוּ בַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה? שֶׁיִּהְיוּ דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה חֲדָשִׁים עָלֶיךָ כְּאִלּוּ הַיּוֹם נְתָנָם (ברכות ס"ג):

ביום הזה THE SAME (lit., this) DAY — on the day of the New Moon. It ought not to write ביום הזה, but ביום ההוא, “on that day”; what, then, is the force of the words “on this day”? Since they refer to the day when the Israelites came to Sinai to receive the Torah they imply that the commands of the Torah should be to you each day as something new (not antiquated and something of which you have become tired), as though He had only given them to you for the first time on the day in question.

1) Why do you think it is important to the Rabbinic tradition to portray Torah as something that is new each day?

2) How do you implement this idea in your own life, or how might you imagine implementing this?

Sefaria's work emerges from the belief that people are always discovering new meaning in Torah, and creating materials to express these meanings. This kind of creativity thrives on collaborative and interactive Torah study, which is why our tools allow for collaboration and conversation.

Story #4: Torah is Delicious

One of the reasons provided for eating sweet dairy treats on Shavuot is that Torah is compared to something sweet, comforting, and delicious.

גם נהגו לאכול דבש וחלב בחג שבועו׳ מפני התור׳ שנמשלה לדבש וחלב כמו שכתוב דבש וחלב תחת לשונך.

It is customary to eat honey and milk on the holiday of Shavuot, because of the Torah, which is compared to milk and honey, as it says, "honey and milk are under your tongue."

Where does it say that "honey and milk are under your tongue?" What is the Kol Bo quoting?? Tip: Try searching for this quote on Sefaria!

נֹ֛פֶת תִּטֹּ֥פְנָה שִׂפְתוֹתַ֖יִךְ כַּלָּ֑ה דְּבַ֤שׁ וְחָלָב֙ תַּ֣חַת לְשׁוֹנֵ֔ךְ וְרֵ֥יחַ שַׂלְמֹתַ֖יִךְ כְּרֵ֥יחַ לְבָנֽוֹן׃

Sweetness drops From your lips, O bride; Honey and milk Are under your tongue; And the scent of your robes Is like the scent of Lebanon.

Oh, there it is! But what does this have to do with Shavuot?

רַבָּנָן אָמְרֵי כָּל מִי שֶׁאוֹמֵר דִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה בָּרַבִּים וְאֵינָן עֲרֵבִין עַל שׁוֹמְעֵיהֶן כִּדְבַשׁ וְחָלָב הַמְעֹרָבִין זֶה בָּזֶה, נוֹחַ לוֹ שֶׁלֹא אֲמָרָן.

The Rabbis say: Anyone who says words of Torah in public, and they are not pleasant to those who hear them like honey and milk mixed together, it would have been better if they had not been said.

Torah, at its best, is sweet, delicious, and comforting (try searching for "Cheesecake" on Sefaria and see what happens...)

Happy Shavuot!