(Courtesy: Ticcun, written by Rabbi Or N. Rose)            

The holiday of Shavuot (observed this year on May 22-24, the 6-7 of Sivan) is a celebration of both the spring harvest and the giving of the Torah by God to Israel at Mount Sinai. It is customary to dedicate the first night of Shavuot to Torah study—both of the texts of the Hebrew Bible itself and of the myriad sources of Jewish creativity that flow from it. In this spirit, we offer the following teaching (translated from Hebrew) on the revelation at Sinai by the famed Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809). Surrounding the homily is a contemporary commentary. It is our hope that this textual exploration helps enrich your Shavuot experience. 

 “At the Sea of Reeds He appeared to them as a young man, and at Mount Sinai He appeared to them as an old man” (Pesikta Rabbati 21:5).

Behold, the Holy Blessed One constricts Himself in the worlds. However, at the Sea of Reeds, where there was a change in nature, He was not garbed in the worlds, and the Children of Israel saw him unclothed. At Mount Sinai, however, the Holy Blessed One dressed Himself such that the worlds could maintain their natural existence. Now in the writings of Isaac Luria (1534-1572) clothing is associated with hair. That is why at the Sea of Reeds He appeared to them as a young man without facial hair—without any worldly garb—while when giving the Torah He revealed Himself to them as an old man with hair—dressed in the garb of the worlds. This is alluded to in the words of our sages of blessed memory (Mekhilta, Be’Shallah 2): “At the Sea even the maidservant saw that which the prophet Ezekiel did not see.”  For Ezekiel and the other prophets saw God clothed in the world, as it were, according to the measure of the worlds. But at the Sea, everyone saw God unclothed. However, at Sinai He had to garb Himself so that the Children of Israel would understand the Torah. This is why it is written (in the Rosh Hashanah liturgy), “You appeared in the cloud of Your glory”; that is to say, in clothing, by limiting His great light, for a cloud is a symbol of darkness … But does the liturgist explain why this was so? It is for this reason that he continues by saying, “… upon Your holy people to speak to them”; meaning, He needed to speak to them so that they would understand His holy words.
Kedushat Levi, Yitro

In this imaginative text, Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berditchev explores the two great moments of communal revelation in the book of Exodus: the Sea of Reeds and Mount Sinai. The Berditchever (as he is commonly known to Hasidim) states that under ordinary circumstances, the Divine reveals Himself to us subtly through the natural workings of the world. While God is present throughout the cosmos (“the worlds,”) animating all of life, He is “garbed” or hidden within corporeality. 

However, at the Sea of Reeds, God reveals Himself in an extraordinary manner by removing His worldly dress and violating the rules of nature. The Divine parts the waters, provides the Israelites with safe passage, and drowns the Egyptians. Using the imagery from Pesikta Rabbati (eighth-ninth century midrash for festivals and special sabbaths), Levi Yitzhak envisions God as a young warrior, Who, in Herculean fashion, boldly saves His people and crushes their enemy, demonstrating His supreme might to all. 

The Berditchever then links this rabbinic image to a Lurianic teaching (from the influential Kabbalist Isaac Luria) about facial hair—another form of covering—explaining that at the Sea of Reeds God is beardless, unclothed, His power uninhibited. So intense is God’s presence at the Sea that even the maidservant—the simplest person among the Israelites—beholds a vision of God more brilliant than the apparitions of Ezekiel and the other Israelite prophets.                   

If the theophany (appearance of God to people) at the Sea is a model of Divine strength, the theophany at the Mountain is a model of Divine restraint. Unlike the earlier revelation, at Sinai God does not topple the natural order. While His descent upon the Mountain causes it to smoke and quake (Exodus 19:18), the earth does not crumble under the weight of His holy presence. Levi Yitzhak teaches that this revelation must be more deliberate than the previous one, because God’s goal at Sinai is to communicate with the people of Israel (directly and through Moses), to share with them the sacred teachings of the Torah. Using the rabbinic and Lurianic texts to support his claim, Levi Yitzhak now envisions the Divine as a wise elder (with a long white beard) who understands the importance of self-limitation (tzimtzum) in interacting with his youthful community. In symbolic terms, God is both “garbed” and “bearded,” His power bounded and measured.  

In the concluding sentences of this sermon, the Berditchever turns to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy to further buttress his reading of the revelation at Sinai. Why does God appear to the Children of Israel in a dark cloud (Exodus 19:18)? The answer to this question, asserts Levi Yitzhak, is found in the liturgical statement “to speak to them,” meaning, the Divine “dresses” Himself in the thickness of the cloud so that He can communicate with the people of Israel without overwhelming them. While God’s heroic actions at the Sea of Reeds may be necessary to impress the Israelites and to astound any would-be foes, at Sinai God wishes to provide His people with the spiritual and ethical tools to function as an increasingly independent community, no longer reliant on God’s supernatural intervention in human history.

As one who is preoccupied with questions of theology, I find much of Levi Yitzhak’s panen-theistic vision resonant with my life experience. I believe that God is both the Creator and Sustainer of all life—the Source from which all of creation issues forth, and the One who renews creation daily. While it sometimes feels as if God is absent from the world, the Hasidic interpretation of tzimtzum (based on earlier Jewish mystical teachings) reminds me that the Divine is ever-present, even if garbed or concealed. Living “after Sinai” means that the divine will not swoop, like at the sea of reeds, and destroy the pharaoh-like forces—natural or human-made—that embitter our lives. God may inspire, agitate, and comfort, but humankind must act to create a just and compassionate world, minimizing the pain and suffering of all of god’s creations.

May our celebration of the festival of Shavuot, complete with Torah study, help us to hear the still small voice of the Divine urging us forth in our efforts at tikkun.

“Blessed are You, YHWH, our God, Sovereign of the universe …  Who has commanded us to occupy ourselves with words of Torah” (Morning Service).

Rabbi Or N. Rose, a contributing editor for Tikkun, is associate dean at the Rabbinical School of He-brew College in Newton, MA. The author of two previous books, he is currently co-editing, Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice (Jewish Lights, FALL 2007).