A central Jewish-Christian myth is the giving of the Covenant at Mt. Sinai, fifty days after the Exodus from Egypt.
Here’s the gist of the story – the Jews are freed from the slavery of Egypt – liberated from the restricted, narrow ways that enslaved them. They’re reborn through their passage through the waters and sent to wander in the purifying and focusing experience of the wilderness.
The Jews finally arrive at Mt. Sinai. Moses ascends the mountain and is given the Commandments, symbolic of God’s ways, God’s teaching. Every Jew present at the base of the mountain experiences God’s invitation to enter the Covenant – asked to use their newly gained freedom to walk the path of life.
Tradition says that every Jew who ever lived or who will ever live was spiritually present at Sinai at the giving of the Covenant.
Tradition has lots more to say about this pivotal spiritual event. And I plan on talking about Mt. Sinai over the next few posts.
Judaism is not a creedal religion – this is hard for many Christians to wrap their head around. There is no Jewish creed. Judaism is about orthopraxy, not orthodoxy. Yes, of course, what one thinks matters, but Judaism asks for action and tolerates a shocking range of diversity concerning some of its most crucial ideas and concepts.
If adherence to a creed doesn’t matter, then what makes someone a Jew? Great question – and one that Jews struggle with, too. Is it having a Jewish mother? Is it conversion? Is it acceptance of a certain set of beliefs?
I argue that being a Jew was to be present at Mt. Sinai at the giving of the Covenant.
As a Jew, I believe I was at Mt. Sinai when the Covenant was given. I’m 49 years old. The Covenant event happened thousands of years ago – if it even really happened at all. How is my assertion possible?
Perhaps something happened at Sinai thousands of years ago. Perhaps not. But the essence of Sinai transcends history and place – it’s an ongoing event and experience. And it’s an experience that ancient Jews and Jews not yet born and those Jews in between all share in common – and I’d argue, it’s the pivotal event that makes them Jewish.
So, what exactly happened at Sinai?
The Torah says that God spoke and all the Israelite community heard God’s voice. God gave the Torah, symbolically represented in the Ten Commandments, to Moses. Yahweh offered the Jews a Covenant and the Jews said yes.
Some liken Sinai to a wedding proposal. Others say God was silent and spoke spiritually (telepathically?) to every Jew present. Some say the Jews received the tablets of the Ten Commandments. Others say the entire Torah was read. Still others say the entire way of being and living was revealed.
I’m not sure what happened, exactly. I only know that I was there.
And every other Jew. And likely every Christian too. Maybe everyone. The whole human family might have heard God at Sinai, even those not born yet.
You were likely there too. I know I was – and I recall meeting my friend Rebecca, who is Catholic, but also Jewish; Jason, Rich, Ruth, Alison, Mike, and yes, even my husband John were all there, don’t you remember bumping into each other? I think we all shared this event – the key is waking up to the experience – and its meaning.
In the posts ahead, I want to talk more about how I understand Sinai and what happened there. I hope you join me.