According to tradition, God gave the people of Israel the Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuot, the holiday we will celebrate Thursday night through Saturday.
There is no way to truly know what–if anything–happened at Mount Sinai. Ultimately, it is a matter of faith to believe God revealed the Torah to Moses and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai.
Faith and reason, however, need not be incompatible.
In the current debate over the factual accuracy of the Bible, scholars debate whether or not archaeology can prove, or disprove, the historicity of the text. As with many such debates, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Clearly the Torah text we have today does include anachronisms that point to a later editorial hand. However, that does not necessarily deny the antiquity and authority of much of the text.
Take, for example, the story of the golden calf. I don’t think it is an accident that the panicked Jews choose to build a golden calf, symbol of the Canaanite storm god, while awaiting Moses’ return from a mountain filled with thunder and lightening. In such a little detail, faith and reason converge: the confluence of a Biblical story and an Ancient Near East fact confirms the contextualization of Torah within the time the story is supposed to have taken place. This is just one of many details we know from modern archaeology but which would have been unavailable to someone writing hundreds of years after the purported events (at the time many date the current Biblical text), unless that person was working from much older material. That’s why I’m not so ready to write off Sinai as mere myth.
That doesn’t mean we know what actually happened at Sinai, though whatever it was certainly changed the course of history.
It might be comforting to know that we are not the first generation to wonder what happened at Sinai. The Talmudic sages wondered whether God uttered only the first commandment, the first word, the first letter, the first aspiration of the soundless Hebrew letter aleph, before the people quailed and begged Moses to intercede, in effect to take notes for them.
They asked whether the Jewish people willingly accepted the covenant, crying out naaseh vnishmah, “we will do and then we will hear the details” (the ancient equivalent of signing a contract from someone you trust without reading the fine print), or whether their ambivalence was so great that God had to threaten them with annihilation before they accepted the covenant.
Sinai raises other questions as well: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asked how could any limited human being, even one as spiritually capable as Moses, contain the infinity of God’s revelation? Think about God trying to download the enormity of Torah, and Moses’ hard drive not being large enough to contain it!
In other words, even if the Torah was transmitted through Moses, Moses could only “get” what made sense to a 13th-century BCE man. For example, he would not have been able to conceive of a religion in which men and women were social and legal equals, as hinted at in the opening scenes where God created the first Adam as equally male and female.
Furthermore, God, being all-knowing, would have known just how much the Israelites of that time could have handled. Therefore, while rejecting human sacrifice, God included animal sacrifices, because God knew that the Israelites would not be able to cope without this mainstay of ancient religion. Lest this sound heretical, Maimonides said something similar when he wrote that, if the Temple were rebuilt, animal sacrifices would not be resumed. Such musings open the way for evolution of observance while still embracing the commanding voice of Torah in our lives.
That is why the most important question is not what actually happened at Sinai, which we cannot recover, but how does Sinai live on in us. According to Rabbi Heschel, the discrete historical moment of Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, was only part of revelation. Revelation continues through Kabbalat Torah, the accepting of the Torah.
Each generation and every individual has the opportunity to continue to receive Torah, not only through Torah study but through applying what Torah teaches to the new conditions of our lives. Every time we ask ourselves WWTD, “What Would Torah (have us) Do?” we find ourselves back at Sinai.