What have been your personal "peak moments," the times when you felt your whole life change? What have been the experiences that have made you feel touched by something beyond the ordinary? On Saturday night, Jews will celebrate Shavuot, the the Festival of the Giving of the Torah. In many ways, Shavuot is the Jewish people's collective "peak moment."
Traditionally, this holiday is understood to be the anniversary of the day when God pronounced the Ten Commandments to Moses and the Israelites from atop Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are a prominent symbol in our tradition.
There are historical reasons for this. Early in the rabbinic era, the Ten Commandments were read as part of the morning service, in the place where we now recite the blessing Ahavah Rabbah, which speaks of God’s love in giving us the entire Torah. The rabbis appear to have dropped the Ten Commandments from this place because their inclusion gave the impression that these ten laws were the most important. But, Judaism is a tradition of 613 commandments, not ten. The Ten Commandments say nothing about dietary laws or observing holidays other than Shabbat. They do not command us to provide for the needs of the poor or to actively pursue peace and justice in the world.
Dropping the Ten Commandments from the liturgy may have been a response by the rabbis to early Christianity, which sought to de-emphasize the laws of the Torah and to create a “pared down list” of the most important mitzvot. The rabbis rejected this idea and sought to dispel the notion that the Ten Commandments were superior to the other 603.
The Ten Commandments do have great meaning and significance in Jewish tradition. It is just that the importance of the Ten Commandments is more about the moment of their revelation than about the specific laws that are included in the actual text.
The chasidic rabbi, Menachem Mendel of Rimonov, actually taught that the words of the Ten Commandment are incidental to the essential experience of God communicating to us. He wrote that, at Mount Sinai, God spoke only the first letter of the first word of the Ten Commandments—the silent letter Aleph. The contemporary Jewish thinker, Rabbi Arthur Green, says of this claim, “God speaks only the great silence; the Divine is a silent womb that contains all of language within it.”
Is there a contradiction here? Was the moment of God’s revelation to Israel a moment of a profound ethical teaching, surrounded by shofar blasts and cosmic upheaval, or was it one of preternatural silence? Perhaps it was both.
Mount Sinai is the moment that symbolizes the Jewish people's link to God. Like a personal moment of deep meaning and life-changing intensity, Sinai may be described as the cosmic event in which we feel an internal avalanche that shakes the foundations of our being and our view of the world. It also may be a moment of stunning calm and equanimity in which we feel that we see the world with new clarity. Perhaps this is why Jewish tradition describes the moment of Sinai in such contradictory terms—it is both the storm and the calm at its center.
Many people who have experienced a moment of personal spiritual intensity say that they continue to carry it with them for many years after. The afterglow of that moment comes back at the times when it is needed most, when we feel that life has left us tattered or disconnected from the world.
We can think of the Ten Commandments as the Jewish people’s collective afterglow from our Sinai moment. We felt God within us at that mythical moment at Sinai and ever after we have wanted to carry some reminder of it with us in our soul. We are just like the person who says during a spiritually intense moment, “God, I promise that, from now on, I’m going to live my life differently.” At Sinai, we vowed that we would abide by a fundamental code for living lives that are ethical, virtuous and meaningful, and the feeling has stayed with us.