Shavuot: seeing the face of G-d

  • IrwinKula
The Jewish festival of Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks – celebrates the encounter between G-d and the people of Israel at Mount Sinai. As described in the Biblical book of Exodus, the newly freed children of Israel receive the Ten Commandments, establish a covenant with G-d, and become a holy nation – a distinctive, set-apart people, committed to live as a model of justice and righteousness.
by RABBI IRWIN KULA | Jun 06, 2019

So, what actually happened at Sinai?

In a radical teaching found in the 7th century midrash (ancient commentary) Pesikta de Rav Kahana, Rabbi Levi taught: “The holy one appeared to them (Israel at Sinai) as though a statue with faces on every side. A thousand people might be looking at the statue, but it would appear to be looking at each one of them directly. So, too, when the holy one spoke, each and every person in Israel could say, ‘The divine word is addressing me.’ The divine word spoke to each and every person according to his particular capacity.”

In order to explain the encounter with G-d, Rabbi Levi compares G-d to an idol. Using this blasphemous metaphor, Rabbi Levi teaches that at Sinai, the people experienced G-d so individually, they would have said G-d was addressing them personally. This teaching suggests there is a deep relationship between our own individuality, temperament, and personality, our biography and place in life, our context, culture, and world, and the G-d we experience.

The Sinai experience was personalised to each of the 600 000 people standing there, nothing less. This means that certainly in our secular times, where G-d is far more hidden and we must strain to hear the still small voice, our experience of G-d must surely flow from who we are, and the expectations and intentions we bring to the experience.

In other words, each person in each age finds an understanding of G-d appropriate to his/her needs and circumstances. No one image or understanding of G-d will ever be appropriate for every person in every time and place.

There is, instead, an ever-changing, dynamic human perspective in which different images of G-d speak in ways appropriate for the moment. Sometimes G-d is father, king, teacher, creator, destroyer, warrior, redeemer, shepherd, the one above, maker of peace, healer, lover, friend, place, nothing, emptiness, presence… or, as Rabbi Levi teaches, a statue of thousands of faces.

Chag sameach!

  • Rabbi Irwin Kula is president of CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York, which works at the intersection of religion and innovation, and the science of human flourishing. He will speak at Limmud Johannesburg (16-18 August); Limmud Durban (21 August); and Limmud Cape Town (23-25 August).


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