When we’re young, and a friend gets a new toy, we often reach out with eager hands and say: “Hey, let me see that.”
We don’t really just want to see it. We want to hold it, to play with it, to experience what it has to offer. We want to know it.
The festival of Shavuot takes us back to Mount Sinai, where the Holy One and our people gathered all together as one for that grand moment of meeting.
After God had shared the last words of the Ten Commandments, the Torah says something peculiar. “All the people saw the sounds and flashes, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.” (Exodus 20:15)
The sages look at this passage and ask the obvious question: how do you see sounds? What was it that the people saw in that moment of theophany – of Divine revelation?
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudilkov, a grandson of Baal Shem Tov, wrote in his commentary Degel Machaneh Efrayim: “I can explain this with a parable I heard from my grandfather. There once was a musician who played a beautiful song, so sweet and pleasant that those who heard it could not restrain themselves. They danced up to the roof in sweet pleasure. The closer one came to the music, the more pleasure they felt and the harder they danced. Then a deaf person came along who could not hear the sweet sound of the music at all. He saw only that the others were dancing … He said to himself, “What is this joy all about?” (cf. Eccl. 2:2) In truth, had he been wise and understanding enough to see that they danced because of the music’s pleasant sound, he would have danced as well.”
So often, we move through life with eyes that do not see, with ears that do not hear, conscious and yet asleep.
For example, I shared lunch yesterday with a friend who was eating a turkey sandwich. We were enjoying our conversation, and neither of us paid much attention to the bread of his sandwich.
But then we stopped to say HaMotzi, the prayer for bread.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.
And we took a moment to consider the bread. We thought about the farmer who cultivated the wheat and who harvested the grain. We thought about the person who drove the grain to the mill where it was ground and sifted into flour. We thought about the person who sent that flour to a market where it was purchased and brought to a bakery. We thought about the person who mixed the flour with other ingredients and baked a loaf of bread. We thought about the person who drove that bread to the restaurant, and thought about the chef who sliced the bread and put the sandwich together. We thought about our server who brought the meal to our table for us to enjoy.
And then we thought about the wonder of wheat itself. We thought about the awesome splendor of our natural world, the extraordinary ecosystem that wondrously grows all the diversity of plants and crops that nourish and sustain our very lives.
Suddenly, we were overwhelmed with gratitude, awareness, and appreciation. It took a little while, but gradually we were able to really see that slice of bread, that it was so much more than just a slice of bread, but a gift from God – a miracle.
Standing together at Sinai, for just a moment, God inspired our people to use their capacity for vision beyond anything they had ever experienced. They could see in a way they had never seen before.
Shavuot celebrates the overwhelming phenomenon of revelation, but in truth, the vision we experienced at Sinai need not be limited to that ancient encounter. Each of us is capable of cultivating that depth of vision in any moment we choose.
The truth of Torah is not a mystery for Sinai, but is open for us in every single instant, if we open our eyes to see that God can be found in everything, in everyone, everywhere, in every moment.