The biblical account contains a vivid description of the mysticalmoment when God presented the Bible to Moses. There was thunder,lightning, the piercing sounds of rams' horns--truly a majestic soundand light show. Countless artists, including Michelangelo, have lavishedtheir genius on the figure of Moses, the great lawgiver.
The Ten Commandments of the Torah are a central focus of Shavuot. Inthousands of synagogues around the world, the Hebrew words of thecommandments are prominently displayed on two large tablets so thatworshippers will never forget the long-ago encounter with God on MountSinai.
While that's the story and tradition, Shavuot and the TenCommandments raise many questions for me, and each year I probe deeperinto the meaning of the holiday.
I wonder why the remote Mount Sinai was chosen for God's revelationof the Bible. Even today, there are sharp disputes among scholars whocontinually debate the exact location of what came to be known as the"Holy Mountain." We do know that Sinai is situated somewhere in thatvast wilderness between the Suez Canal and the borders of modern Israel,and that makes sense because the ancient Israelites fled Egypt, crossedthe Red Sea and wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. But on whichmountain in that large land mass did God reveal the Torah? No one knowsfor sure.
In addition, Jewish biblical commentators were frequently baffledthat such a great event took place in a geographically remote area farfrom large cities and towns. The commentators came up with apsychologically and theologically shrewd answer. Mount Sinai was chosenprecisely because it was so isolated from the great cultural andpopulation centers of the region, especially Egypt, the land of slaverywith its despised fleshpots, and the idol-loving Mesopotamia, today'sIraq.
Because the gift of the Torah to a group of slaves was consideredthe true beginning of Judaism, everything had to start fresh, free ofall other civilizations and cultures. The rabbinical commentators madethe telling point that God's revelation was a unique event and was notbased on already existing religions, whether in Egypt or anywhere else.
Then there's the fascinating issue of Moses' fiery temper. Afterreceiving the stone tablets containing God's miraculous words, Mosescame down from the mountain and returned to the 600,000 former Israeliteslaves. During his 40 days atop the mountain, the people encamped belowhad become fearful and believed Moses had abandoned them. It was as iftheir leader had suddenly taken an executive leave of absence.
To overcome their fear, the slaves melted down their jewelry andcreated a god-idol, the infamous Golden Calf. When Moses returned withthe biblical tablets in hand, he went ballistic at the sight of the idoland he shattered the precious tablets containing God's word. Of course,he ascended Mount Sinai a second time and returned again with the sacredtablets.
But was it necessary for Moses to break the tablets, force thestunned people to melt the Golden Calf, and compel them to drink themolten metal? Was Moses expecting too much from the former slaves whowere still a ragtag rabble without a central legal code and who lackedan understanding of the great events that had taken place on MountSinai?
After all, the Israelites simply reflected normal human frailty.They were afraid and impatient. Did such "sins" require such an angry,radical reaction from Moses?
For nearly 2,000 years, Jewish commentators have defended Moses bypointing out that he was only carrying out the will of God. They furthernoted that after his explosion of anger, Moses cooled down and asked Godto forgive the former slaves. First, Moses invoked severe punishmentupon his people and then he mercifully interceded with God on theirbehalf.
As every political and religious leader knows, such "stick andcarrot" tactics carry extreme risks, but happily Moses was successful inhis efforts. Idolatry in the form of the Golden Calf was repudiated andthe people accepted the Torah. However, Moses paid a high price for hisachievement. Because of his explosive temper, God prevented him fromentering the Promised Land. Moses, in full strength, died atop MountNebo gazing into the land of Israel with great sadness.