Forty-nine days ago, we began an annual journey, and now we’ve arrived. We’re here at the foot of Mount Sinai.
The Jewish people prepare for this moment annually through the counting of the omer. The counting of the omer (an omer was a measurement of grain) takes place between the second night of Passover until Shavuot, when Jews recite a nightly blessing and count the number of days that have passed. Officially, the counting of the omer was an ancient agricultural practice, a way for the Israelites to keep a calendar between two major pilgrimage festivals. It also marks the beginning of the barley harvest, a grain our ancestors would bring as an offering to the Temple in Jerusalem.
The culmination of this period, Shavuot, represents the mystical moment the Israelites receive the gift of Torah from God on Mount Sinai. Collected at the bottom of Sinai, amid the roaring of thunder and clouds of smoke, Moses brought down the Torah, our revelation. The Israelites who have transitioned from an enslaved people to a free people now became the People of the Book, the followers of God’s law. It’s a seismic change. Spiritually, we, too, feel this change as we re-enact these transitional moments every year from
Passover through Shavuot in ritual and prayer. We connect with our ancestors and experience the pull of history and tradition as if it was happening to us. We do this not only because Jewish tradition says so, but because, according to tradition, each of us was there, at least metaphorically. We were also once enslaved and then freed, and we were also there to receive revelation. We experience this spiritual journey because it is happening to us.
But it’s hard work to get to the mountain. It was hard for our ancestors, and it’s hard for us. That’s the thing with spiritual journeys. There may be major, earth-shaking moments, like the crossing of the Sea of Reeds or the falling of manna from the sky. But these are rare. The rest of the time (and it takes a long time) is spent just trudging along.
Rabbinic tradition teaches that each and every Jew was there at the moment of revelation. Not just the “good Jews” or the observant Jews. Not just the Jews who felt connected to God. All of us, even the tired and spiritually frustrated Jews. No matter what state we arrived in, we were there. And we’re here once again.
Although we make this journey every year, we never arrive as the same person. Throughout our lives, our spiritual journeys can resemble that of the Israelites, depending on the moment. There may be moments of feeling constricted; the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, translates as “the narrow place.” There also may be moments of great release. There may be moments when we feel connected to something greater than ourselves. Other times, we may feel very far away from God.
There may be times when we feel worn down by the journey, wondering when, if ever, it will get easier. A mountain is a physical representation both of spiritual enlightenment and a monumental obstacle. Both are possible. It depends on how weary the traveler is.
We can’t control what happens to us or how we will feel when we once again arrive at the mountain. But we’re here, all of us, and now we can look to the mountain and ask ourselves: Could this be a moment of spiritual elevation?
Michael Kiesow Moore tells us in his poem, “Climbing the Golden Mountain”:
of our lives
lake of nothing,
then we can
us to be
to hear it.
Now that Shavuot is here and we find ourselves at the bottom of that golden mountain, we ask: What do we need? Silence. A turning off. A moment to recognize that we’ve arrived in this state, as we are, right now with the rest of our people. If we want to approach this mountain as a spiritual awakening, we need to quiet the chatter in our minds and remember that this mountain, this moment, is ours.
Some of us may be thinking that the mountain seems taller, more treacherous than it was last year. Instead of enlightenment, it feels like just another obstacle to climb. But, like our poem illustrates, climbing isn’t actually the goal of Shavuot. Revelation comes to us at the foot of the mountain. What we need to do now is the same whether we feel spiritually ready or not. To recognize that we’re here, we are ready, and we are deserving as we are now. The golden mountain is always there; it’s just waiting for us to be still enough to hear it.
Rabbi Janine Jankovitz serves Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid and is a 2020 graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.