The greatest event in history took place there, but the rabbinic sages were adamant that it was and remains a rather ordinary mountain, unimpressive in relation to the majestic peaks elsewhere. The place was not as important as the message: the lesson mattered more than the locale. After the Six-Day War we were able see the mountain that is reputed to be Mount Sinai close up, and the rabbinic notion that this was no grand, remarkable peak was proved over and over again.
So if we cannot and do not concentrate on the venue, what of the message with which it is associated? The message is Revelation: God revealed Himself to Moses and the assembled multitude of Israel. A difficult concept, for God is infinite and non-physical, and yet He was able to communicate with finite, physical mankind. Of course nothing is impossible for God, but our human reason cries out to understand how the Revelation could have happened.
“No man can see Me and live”, says God (Ex. 33:20), and yet human beings perceived something of Him, even if it was with the mind’s eye and not in the normal sense, and they lived. The people said to Moses, “You speak to us and we shall hear: let not God speak to us, lest we die” (Ex. 20:30), and yet God did speak to them, and they did not die.
“The people saw the thunder” (Ex. 20:15); the rabbis remarked, “They saw that which is normally heard, and they heard that which is normally seen”. It seems that the demarcation between the senses fell away. All five senses combined in a unique experience. There was no longer a dividing line between sight and hearing, smell and touch, feeling and any of the other senses.
Man rose above his normal self. His elevation removed him from the constraints of earthly life. His ecstasy brought him into higher realms. For a moment man was in heaven, and lived. Moses had feared that the moment would bring destruction: “Let them keep away, lest they break through to see God, and many will perish” (Ex. 19:21) – but they survived.
There may be a parallel in a story told of four rabbis who entered “the garden (of spirituality)” and only one – Rabbi Akiva – “entered in peace and emerged in peace” (Chag. 14b). The miracle of the Revelation at Sinai is that a whole people entered in peace and emerged in peace. What actually happened we cannot discern with the regular apparatus of human reason and logic, but our ancestors knew that they had perceived a glimpse of God and had heard His voice.
What Sinai teaches us is that earth-bound mortals, however rarely, can reach out to the Ineffable and rise above the limitations of their physical senses. It teaches us, too, that in an ethical sense we can rise above the defects and drawbacks of being human and achieve a world in which love, truth, peace and justice are actualities and not just dreams.