Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates the gift of Torah, begins on Saturday night. The Torah itself describes this occasion as being accompanied by dramatic and terrifying noise and spectacle: thunder, long shofar blasts, earthquake, fire and smoke. As I type this, I am listening to the honks and sirens on Seventh Avenue far below, and I wonder: if Mt. Sinai were in New York City, would anyone notice if God started proclaiming?
Mt. Sinai, of course, is in the middle of the desert, a place of profound and almost absolute quiet. Some people say that the Hebrew word for desert, midbar, means “a place of speech.” That sounds completely counter-intuitive unless you consider that a desert is a place that is so quiet that we might finally hear the Speech that is actually there all the time. And in fact, there are midrashim, or rabbinic stories, that say that God is always speaking at Sinai, but that on the day Torah was given, the 6th of Sivan so long ago, the desert was completely silent so that we could really hear.
Contemplative Jews (including me) love those midrashim. To a contemplative person, silence is clearly the better context to hear the voice of truth. It is in the silence that the noise of life can settle down and reveal the hidden wisdom that grows underneath. So why does the Torah text itself insist that the Torah was given in the midst of so much clamor?
Perhaps it was the setting. Perhaps it was the extreme contrast between the quiet desert and the thunderous mountain that startled the Israelites into the possibility of hearing something new. In that case, in our noisy lives, the contrast of stillness may be exactly the thing that startles us into that same possibility.
My intention for this Shavuot is to engage in some great Torah learning, to spend time with dear friends and to eat some New York cheesecake. It is also to find a quiet corner, even in this frenetic city, to see if maybe I can hear something unexpected and true.