In this week’s episode, we found the Israelites gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments. It’s one of the Bible’s highest-production scenes. The original story gives us smoke and fire, earthquake and ear-splitting horns. As Moses addresses the people, God echoes him in thunder.
The rabbis of the Talmud add details to the picture. As a hammer splits a rock into countless pieces, we’re told, each word from God’s mouth split into seventy languages. Setting aside the question of whether God has a mouth, and understanding that “seventy” here means “every,” the point is that revelation is something experienced by each person according to her own terms.
Other rabbinical riffs put the same idea a little differently. At the moment of revelation, we hear, God appeared as a statue with multiple faces pointing in multiple directions, so each person felt individually addressed. A third rabbi suggests that God spoke to each person according to her capacity to comprehend the message.
These passages remind me of the revelations I’ve experienced, those aha instances when critical questions that were murky a moment ago are suddenly clear.
Sometimes clarity comes in the form of new information that upends old assumptions. A secret is confessed, a mystery is solved, new data is offered, an unexpected diagnosis slaps you upside your head and forces you to rethink reality. That sort of revelation can be shattering and life-changing, but it’s not what I think of when I try to make sense of the Sinai story.
You think the fact that they weren’t supposed to murder or steal from each other was news to the Israelites? Of course not. They just needed to see their innate morality laid out in plain language.
The sort of revelation I’m thinking of isn’t announced. It’s uncovered. It’s the moment when you finally recognize what you already suspected, but wouldn’t – couldn’t – acknowledge, because you were too distracted or confused or set in your ways, too attached to your previous plans. Or too scared to take that next step.
Blow the whistle.
Step close enough to the mountain, and your heart starts beating like thunder. Stand still enough to listen, you might hear what it’s trying to tell you. What you’re trying to tell yourself.