The Sounds of Sinai
Where exactly is Mount Sinai?
It is a simple question without a simple answer.
Unlike the Temple Mount about which there is basic agreement as to the location of the mountain, there is vigorous scholarly debate over the location of Mount Sinai.
Many people assume that biblical Mount Sinai where the Ten Commandments were given is either Jebel Musa or Mount Catherine the highest mountain peaks in the Sinai Desert. However, some scholars suggest that the true Mount Sinai is Har Karkom in the Negev Desert. Still others maintain that Mount Sinai should be identified with a number of possible volcanic like mountains in current day Saudi Arabia. A fourth approach suggests that the true Mount Sinai is near modern day Petra.
All of these different opinions remind us that we don’t really know where Mount Sinai is and we don’t view the mountain as a holy place.
Why is this the case?
After all, we know that God actually dwelled on that mountain during the giving of the Ten Commandments, as it states, “Vayered Hashem al Har Sinai al rosh ha-har, and Gd came down on Mount Sinai on the top of the mountain” (19:20). Indeed, out of respect for the holiness of the place, the Jewish people are warned that they are not allowed to go up the mountain or even to touch it, not them or their animals until the sound of the shofar signals that the Sinaitic revelation has concluded (19:12-13).
According to the Talmud, Mount Sinai is not a holy place.
“R. Nachman b Rav Chisda said to R. Nachman b. Yitzchak let the master arise and come to live with us in our neighborhood [as understood by Dikdukei Soferim]. R. Nachman b. Yitzchak responded a person is not honored by the place, but rather the person is what honors the place (adam mekhabed et mekomo). For thus we find at Mount Sinai that as long as the Shekhinah rested on Sinai the place was holy, as it states that the sheep and cattle may not graze upon the mountain. But after the Shekhinah departed then the place lost its holiness as it states, ‘when the shofar blasts they can ascend the mountain, bimshokh hayovel heimah yaalu bahar” (Taanit, 21b).
The Talmud is teaching us that Sinai is not a holy place. It was only holy when God’s Presence was on the mountain, but once the Presence departed then the special holiness of the mountain also departed.
This idea that the place Mount Sinai is not an intrinsically holy place explains why we don’t have a strong Jewish tradition about the location of the mountain. From a spiritual perspective it is almost irrelevant. It is historically interesting, but spiritually irrelevant.
The upshot about not caring about the historical location of Mount Sinai has both practical and ideological ramifications.
Here are three ramifications of this idea.
One basic ramification is what direction we should face when we pray.
It is pretty much accepted that we in America face East when praying.
In fact, this is so well known that there is one member of our shul who uses this against me in a good natured manner. Every time I turn to him with a problem, he looks at me and says, “Rabbi, face East and pray!”
But are we really supposed to face East when praying?
The Talmud in Berachot (30a) tells us that we should pray while facing towards Jerusalem (chayyav adam lehitpallel negged yerushalayim), which for us in this country happens to be East.
But this is not a universal position. There is actually a vigorous debate in the Talmud as to what direction we should pray in.
The Talmud in Bava Basra (25a) teaches that it is prohibited to put a tannery within a certain proximity of a city on account of the fact that the tannery gives off a terrible odor.
R. Akiva adds to this that actually one can put a tannery in any direction leading from the city except on the Western side. The Talmud explains that the Western side of the city is where the Divine Presence dwells and thus it is inappropriate to place a tannery there.
Since the Divine Presence dwells in the West, Rabbi Yehoshu b. Levi taught that everyone should face West when praying. He compared the sun setting in the West to an image of a servant bowing down to their master.
On that same page of the Talmud three other rabbis argue that God is not found only in the West but actually dwells in every place. R. Yishmael taught, “hashekhinah bekhol makom.”
So too, Rav Sheshet said to his attendant, “Le-kol ruchata ukman le-bar mimizrach.” Rav Sheshet was blind so he didn’t know which direction he was facing in. So he told his attendant when it was time to pray that the attendant could point him in any direction except towards the East. The reason why he wouldn’t face East and pray is because other nations at that time worshipped the sun in the East and so he wanted to distinguish himself. The Talmud concludes from this incident that Rav Sheshet also felt that God’s Presence was everywhere and therefore prayer could happen in every direction (except East).
How do we synthesize the three different approaches? One opinion is that we pray towards Jerusalem and another opinion is that we pray towards the West and a third opinion is that we can pray in any direction.
Tosafot (25a s.v. le-khol) suggests that these sages are all arguing with each other and this represents three different ideas about which way we should pray.
The Mishnah Berurah does say that we should pray facing towards Jerusalem (Orach Chaim 94:1). However, the halakha also is that one has fulfilled their obligation for prayer no matter what direction one has faced (see Taz, 94:1).
Thus, even though we are supposed to pray towards the East, that is just a custom which some argue is just derived from the fact that we have to pick a direction in order to fix our prayers and does not necessarily reflect an objectively ideal direction for prayer. And really if we pray in any direction we have fulfilled our mitzvah of prayer. (See Mesivta Shas, Bava Basra 2, Yalkut Biurim, 125 n.93).
Rabbi Shlomo Hakohen, who was the Chief Dayan of Vilna in the 19th century, suggests a different approach that actually synthesizes the two main Talmudic approaches. He argues that the Talmud in Berakhot which says to face Jerusalem during prayer was referring to when the Temple was still standing. But once the Temple was destroyed the Divine Presence departed and therefore the new approach of these other rabbis was put forward – God’s Presence is everywhere and thus we can face any direction when praying (Binyan Shlomo, responsum 9).
This reminds us of the explanation of the Talmudic text relating to Mount Sinai; i.e. that Sinai was holy only when God’s presence was there but once the Presence departed the holiness also departed.
This leads us to a second ramification of the idea that God’s Presence departed from Sinai. It is a cautionary note not to worship any specific place. If Mount Sinai is not holy, then no place is intrinsically holy.
This is a point that requires a lot of nuance. Personally speaking I just returned from a pilgrimage visit to the land of Israel. Every time I visit Israel I have the custom of praying every single morning at sunrise at the Western Wall. And this time was no different. I receive tremendous inspiration from those prayers. When I am there I feel the holiness in the air. Yet, we must be careful not to worship the place. The holiness that I feel in the air does not come from the intrinsic holiness of the place but rather from the fact that it is a place, which is now filled with prayers. If there would be no prayers there or if the Wall will be co-opted by cruel people who don’t respect the rights of others, then the Wall will lose its holiness.
There is also a third ramification of the concepts we have been discussing.
On a very basic level the rabbis of the Talmud are simply arguing about the proper direction to face during prayers.
But this argument can also be seen as reflecting a deeper set of values.
This debate can really be seen as a proxy for a fundamental question that we need to constantly be asking ourselves: Should the primary focus of our prayers and energy be the Jewish people or should they be more universalistic? Should our hearts only turn towards Jerusalem or should we look at the entire world? Should we care only about our own kind or should our prayers reflect the concept that God is everywhere – in all four corners of the world and not just in Jerusalem.
Clearly both are true. We need to focus our prayers on our own family – the Jewish people, and also in a more universal vein, on the entire world.
This is not only true of how we pray, it is also true of how we teach and practice the Torah.
The Torah calls us a mamlechet kohanim and an am segulah (19:4-6), a nation of priests and a chosen nation. What this means is that just like the Kohanim have a responsibility of serving the Jewish people by teaching us the Torah and helping us worship Hashem, so too we Jews have a responsibility of teaching the message of the Torah to the entire world.
We Jewish people must carry a message of the Torah. This message has meaning only if it is a message that attempts to impact for good the entire world. If it is just about our own tribe, then it is too limiting and we are losing our charge as a mamlekhet kohanim. Mamlekehet Kohanim means we need to be the priests to the world: we serve God by serving the world.
In this context, I have been thinking about an idea lately that I want to share with you.
I want to invite families and individuals within our congregation to explore with me the idea of each of us adopting a child—not an infant, but a child.
On my recent trip to Israel I met with Rabbi Susan Silverman. She is married to our recent guest, Yossi Abramowitz. She and Yossi have adopted two children. It is very hard to adopt an infant, but unfortunately not enough people want to adopt children. There is a great shortage of willing families, and there is a need for older children to be adopted both domestically and internationally.
There are 400,000 children in the US foster care system. About a quarter are available for adoption. There are between 8-12 million children in orphanage institutions worldwide.
What would it look like if fifteen families in our community would explore together the idea of adopting a child?
God has blessed our community in so many ways. We have the most amazing people in the world here. We have so many resources. We have model parents and families. We can use our resources and affect the world one child at a time.
Rabbi Silverman created an organization called Second Nurture. She works with communities and tries to find communities where there are multiple families willing to adopt at the same time. In this way, the adopted children and the families are able to support each other.
She will be coming to meet with me in our shul on March 16 at noon. If you are at all interested in joining Rhanni and me on this path then I encourage you to join me for that meeting. (I also want to be clear that this will not happen overnight. I view this as a one to two year preparatory effort leading up to the actual adoption.)
After I met with Rabbi Silverman I was telling a friend about how she told me that some of these children in orphanages end up being sold as slaves. I was so distressed about what I heard that I had forgotten that my seven-year-old daughter was standing next to me. I felt her tug on my arm. She said, “Abba, tell mommy not to give away my bed. We need to save it for one of these girls.”
It is our own children who can remind us that sometimes we don’t need to overthink things. We should just do what is right.
The portion begins with Vayishma Yitro (18:1), and Yitro heard. What did he hear?
The Talmud (Zevachim, 116a) says that actually Yitro heard the sounds of Mount Sinai for when the Torah was given at Sinai the sounds of the Torah went from one end of the world to the other.
Sinai is only holy if its message can be heard throughout the whole world.
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