The biblical account contains a vivid description of the mystical moment when God presented the Bible to Moses. There was thunder, lightning, the piercing sounds of rams' horns--truly a majestic sound and light show. Countless artists, including Michelangelo, have lavished their genius on the figure of Moses, the great lawgiver.
The Ten Commandments of the Torah are a central focus of Shavuot. In thousands of synagogues around the world, the Hebrew words of the commandments are prominently displayed on two large tablets so that worshippers will never forget the long-ago encounter with God on Mount Sinai.
While that's the story and tradition, Shavuot and the Ten Commandments raise many questions for me, and each year I probe deeper into the meaning of the holiday.
I wonder why the remote Mount Sinai was chosen for God's revelation of the Bible. Even today, there are sharp disputes among scholars who continually debate the exact location of what came to be known as the "Holy Mountain." We do know that Sinai is situated somewhere in that vast wilderness between the Suez Canal and the borders of modern Israel, and that makes sense because the ancient Israelites fled Egypt, crossed the Red Sea and wandered for 40 years in the wilderness. But on which mountain in that large land mass did God reveal the Torah? No one knows for sure.
In addition, Jewish biblical commentators were frequently baffled that such a great event took place in a geographically remote area far from large cities and towns. The commentators came up with a psychologically and theologically shrewd answer. Mount Sinai was chosen precisely because it was so isolated from the great cultural and population centers of the region, especially Egypt, the land of slavery with its despised fleshpots, and the idol-loving Mesopotamia, today's Iraq.
Because the gift of the Torah to a group of slaves was considered the true beginning of Judaism, everything had to start fresh, free of all other civilizations and cultures. The rabbinical commentators made the telling point that God's revelation was a unique event and was not based on already existing religions, whether in Egypt or anywhere else.
Then there's the fascinating issue of Moses' fiery temper. After receiving the stone tablets containing God's miraculous words, Moses came down from the mountain and returned to the 600,000 former Israelite slaves. During his 40 days atop the mountain, the people encamped below had become fearful and believed Moses had abandoned them. It was as if their leader had suddenly taken an executive leave of absence.
To overcome their fear, the slaves melted down their jewelry and created a god-idol, the infamous Golden Calf. When Moses returned with the biblical tablets in hand, he went ballistic at the sight of the idol and he shattered the precious tablets containing God's word. Of course, he ascended Mount Sinai a second time and returned again with the sacred tablets.
But was it necessary for Moses to break the tablets, force the stunned people to melt the Golden Calf, and compel them to drink the molten metal? Was Moses expecting too much from the former slaves who were still a ragtag rabble without a central legal code and who lacked an understanding of the great events that had taken place on Mount Sinai?
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 by pointing out that he was only carrying out the will of God. They further noted that after his explosion of anger, Moses cooled down and asked God to forgive the former slaves. First, Moses invoked severe punishment upon his people and then he mercifully interceded with God on their behalf.
As every political and religious leader knows, such "stick and carrot" tactics carry extreme risks, but happily Moses was successful in his efforts. Idolatry in the form of the Golden Calf was repudiated and the people accepted the Torah. However, Moses paid a high price for his achievement. Because of his explosive temper, God prevented him from entering the Promised Land. Moses, in full strength, died atop Mount Nebo gazing into the land of Israel with great sadness.