"On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, 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.… Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for Adonai had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder."
The bright orange-red glow appeared suddenly, tracking up from the horizon. Then we saw the first stage of the Atlas V rocket separate and the next stage ignite. The whole thing lasted only a few minutes and it was much too far away for us to hear anything. We couldn't see the smoke or feel the trembling of the ground. But, even from a distance of 90 miles, we could tell that the rocket's fireball was big, impressive, awe-inspiring.
My children are both fans of science fiction and fantasy. They have seen thousands of spacecraft fly on movie screens and in the pages of novels. This was the first time, though, that either of them had seen a real rocket launch. They stared up in wonder. For them, it was like a giant book had opened up above their heads. It revealed, in the place of words on a page, a burning sky.
When I read this week's Torah portion (Yitro) and its description of the moment before the revelation at Mount Sinai, I hear such similar images of fire, smoke, ground trembling, and a deafening blast of sound. This is the language of awe. It is the experience of being overwhelmed by something impossibly powerful and magnificent beyond our human scale.
Except that, for human beings of the 21st century, it's not.
The scale once reserved for divinity has become our own. The power to heave a 700,000-pound rocket into space, for us, is human scale. That which was beyond the imagination of the ancients has become, to us, accepted reality. Things that were once the stuff of fantasy and imagination are now real.
The problem modern people have with the miracles described in the Bible—like the revelation at Mount Sinai—is not that they are beyond our belief. Rather, they seem so puny to us. Why shouldn't we believe in a God who can fill the air with trumpet blasts, shake the ground with an earthquake, and light the sky with fire? To us, it's just another rocket launch that will appear on the back pages of the newspaper, if at all. It's the halftime show at the Superbowl. There is no deed so mighty, it seems, that we cannot do it.
It makes me wonder, then… Has Sinai lost the power to impress us? Have we become so awed by our own human power that we lack the ability to be awed by anything except ourselves?
If the answer is yes, it is a sad testimony for the state of the human soul. If we have reached the point at which nothing fascinates us more than our own triumphs, then we have become a race of hopeless narcissists. We have lost the spark of being able to marvel at the world beyond us.
Fortunately, our tradition has another metaphor—apart from the metaphor of fire, thunder and shofar blasts—for experiencing awe and wonder. It is the metaphor we find in the book of Kings when the prophet Elijah was led back to Mount Sinai by an angel. The text tells us that at the holy mountain, the prophet experienced…
"A mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but Adonai was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake, but Adonai was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but Adonai was not in the fire. And after the fire—a still, small voice."
—I Kings 19:11-12
To recapture our sense of wonder, I believe we must turn our gaze away from the large and magnificent (were we only see ourselves), and look, instead, in the still small voice of ordinary and extraordinary human experience. Instead of using metaphors for God that refer to a powerful King, Sovereign and Ruler, we should instead talk about experiencing divinity in the moments that shape our lives—moments of insight and tenderness, moments of noticing the wonder in our children's eyes.
I had another such moment today. I sat with a family in the hospital that had just learned that their elderly patriarch would be entering hospice care as he prepares for life's final journey. I held the old man's hand, spoke gently to him about how much his family loves him, and turned to his daughters as I saw them daubing tears from the corners of their red eyes. The few quiet words we spoke after that were all we needed to feel God's breath upon us.
I don't need thunder and fire to understand Sinai. To me, the awe-inspiring moment of revelation is more clearly felt and more deeply experienced at a time like this. The world beyond ourselves has become the world within ourselves. It is not the might of our weapons, the speed of our computers, or the thrust of our rockets that show us God. Rather, it is in recognizing our frailty, and in remembering how much we need each other.
That is the moment when we stand again at the foot of God's holy mountain in the wilderness. That is where we know God.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Shemini: The Thing
Yitro: Science and Faith