Mt. Sinai – I Was There
Rabbi Jason Miller
Much of the disharmony in the Jewish community today can be attributed to the divergence of opinions concerning the revelation of our Torah at Mt.Sinai. Regardless of what one believes actually occurred at that mountain, the essential issue for us on the festival of Shavuot is that we feel a part of divine revelation. How do we internalize the midrashic tradition that all Jews stood at Sinai as the Torah was revealed to Israel? Just as we seek the spiritual connection to see ourselves as having escaped Egyptian slavery on Pesach, we also attempt to envision ourselves at Sinai as the Torah was revealed several millennia ago.
Never has the spiritual force of revelation affected me more than it did on the early morning of May 31, 1998. I had recently graduated college and was spending Shavuot at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, where I was serving as youth group advisor. The new assistant rabbi, Rabbi Steve Weiss, decided that the congregation would offer an all-night Tikkun Leil Shavuot (study session) and then a dawn Shacharit service just before 5:00 a.m.
It was a memorable night with many opportunities for Torah study with several wonderful teachers including three eighth grade students from the local Jewish day school. With delicious snacks and caffeinated beverages, about thirty of us managed to stay up the entire night. We decided to hold the minyan outdoors in the courtyard so we could enjoy the sunrise while we prayed.
The Torah service that morning took on new meaning for me. The Torah was paraded around and I had the sense that we really were at Sinai claiming what God had lovingly gifted to us. As I stood at the Torah for my aliyah, the sky began to get dark again. The Torah reader pronounced, “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning…” As the words “thunder” and “lightning” were uttered, a huge thunderstorm ensued. The Torah reader managed to get out a few more words, chanting “…and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.”
At that point, the sky opened up and the heavy rains began. I grabbed the Torah and ran inside to the chapel where the Torah reading was completed. As I wiped the raindrops from my glasses, I remember thinking that this must be divine revelation. This was the epitome of holiness. This existential experience was full of awe and majesty, thunderclaps and lightning bolts. Best of all, it was shared with community.
This was a liminal moment in my life. The experience has had a lasting effect on my life in the eight years since. Being shaken by the thunder, seeing the lightning, and hearing the words of our Torah convinced me that I really did stand at Sinai. We were all there together. As a community.
Much has happened in my life since that Shavuot in 1998. I got married, became the father of three children, earned a master’s degree in education, became an ordained rabbi, returned to Michigan for my first full-time job, and I will soon relocate to Columbus Ohio to begin a new journey as the spiritual leader of a wonderful congregation. All of these accomplishments, all of these milestones, are informed by that experience in the early dawn hours of Shavuot in 1998.
That was my revelation. That spiritually charged moment had the three ingredients that shape my life and my rabbinate: God, Torah and Israel. I felt the awesome force of the Holy One, I was touched by the words of Torah, and I stood together with my fellow Jews.
May we all be blessed to share such powerful moments together in the years ahead.