In a few short weeks we will complete our metaphoric journey from Egypt on Pesach to Sinai on Shavuot. Just as we learned that the heart of the Haggadah is located in the injunction to actually experience the Exodus for ourselves through the ritual, so also the Rabbinic teachers challenged us to experience the Sinai moment as if it were occurring in our own time, our own lives. All of us, say the Rabbis, were/are at Sinai. How is this possible? What does it even mean?
Allow me to digress. In the Mishnah, tractate Berachot, we learn that:
“One who recites Shema and did not recite in a manner audible to his own ear fulfilled his obligation. However Rabbi Yose says: He did not fulfill his obligation.”
If we consider that hearing the Shema is essentially the same as hearing the voice at Sinai, then unpacking this Mishna may help us in understanding what is required by us to experience the Sinai moment.
According to the Talmud, the author of the first opinion in this Mishnah indicates that the word ‘Shema’ is not to be taken literally. The issue is about more than mere audibility. One must understand the words of the liturgy, and understand the words whether they recite them audibly or in their heart. On the other hand, Rabbi Yose contends that one must actually hear the words in order to appropriately respond to them.
The first opinion in the Mishnah is the more practical solution. We can only hope that in the course of reading this liturgy the person is fully conscious of its implications whether they are recited aloud or not. Rabbi Yose is both more skeptical and more demanding. Since we express our encounter with divine energy as having been carried by a voice in words that we could hear, then in the effort to re-experience that moment we must hear the words again addressed to us.
It is this more demanding opinion that is expressed in the Rabbinic idea that we were all at Sinai together and that we are again at Sinai in the observance of Shavuot. It is this idea that is central to our approach to Mussar. It is the recognition that the Other is speaking to us. Not that the Other spoke to us, but that we are being addressed today as much as on Shavuot and as much as at the original moment that the Sinai story memorializes.
On the day that George Floyd died the Other was addressing us. On the day that Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder, the Other was addressing us. This we can acknowledge through the silent direction of our hearts. But the Other is still addressing us. Today. That, I believe, requires that we openly acknowledge that we can hear it by bringing it from our hearts to our lips and from our lips to our limbs. That is what Rabbi Yose demanded and what Mussar demands. That is what it means to be standing at Sinai: to articulate with our own voices the voice addressed to us.