Last week, as we marked the holiday of Shavuot, many of us in the wee hours between darkness and dawn marked our receiving of Torah on Mount Sinai by studying Torah all night. After 49 days of counting that began on the second night of Passover, we have finally reached the apex of the journey we began then.
As it is described in the Torah itself, our experience of receiving Torah is intensely powerful. Moses gathers all the people at the foot of Mount Sinai in preparation to receive the word of God. Suddenly, the earth begins to quake and tremble as the mountain becomes consumed in smoke. Louder and louder, the shofar blasts build to a powerful crescendo announcing this long-awaited moment. And then, from amid this chaotic excitement and terror, Moses calls out to God, and God answers him “b’kol,” with a voice (Exodus 19:19). In what follows, God transmits the core elements of Jewish practice and belief, establishing the foundation of Judaism as we know it.
In Jewish tradition, powerful historical events like the exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai are thought of not simply as one-time occurrences, but as phenomena we celebrate by embodying the experience of the event. On Passover, we are instructed to see ourselves as if we ourselves, and not just our ancestors, have made and are making the journey from slavery to freedom. Similarly, on Shavuot we attempt to relive the ecstatic and transcendent Sinai experience by staying up all night studying Jewish texts, preparing ourselves for revelation anew.
After all that excitement and intensity comes this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Naso. In some ways, this parsha can be a bit of a letdown. We’ve just encountered the Divine, and opened ourselves to Torah. Down from the mountain, we turn back to the weekly cycle only to be confronted with the mundane details of census taking, priestly duties and extensive descriptions of sacrificial offerings brought by each tribe as part of the Temple dedication.
In some ways, Parshat Naso very much feels like “after the ecstasy, the laundry.” In Jack Kornfeld’s book by this title, he writes, “Most of us have to reenter the marketplace to fulfill our realization. As we come down from the mountain, we may be shocked to find how easily our old habits wait for us, like comfortable and familiar clothes. Even if our transformation is great and we feel peaceful and unshakable, some part of our return will inevitably test us.”
Here we are, post-Shavuot, down from the mountain, being challenged to integrate our newfound revelation with the nitty-gritty of how many bulls, rams and oxen each tribe offered up for anointing the altar. It’s as if almost immediately, the magnificent Sinai experience fades and we are consumed with the specifics of ritual and practice before us. In the words of poet Merle Feld:
As time passes
the hard data
the who what where when and why
slip away from me.
And then, at the very end of this parsha, we encounter a striking passage. After 80 verses dealing with sacrifice, we come to the final verse of Parshat Naso — strikingly different in tone and content from what comes before —in which Moses walks into the Tent of Meeting and hears the Voice speaking with him (Numbers 7:89). We hear the word “kol” (voice), and suddenly we’re transported back to Shavuot, to the sounds, excitement and ecstasy of the Sinai encounter, the “kol” that speaks to us from atop the mountain. According to Rashi, “The Voice” speaking to Moses here is the very same voice that spoke at Sinai.
Hidden among the details of this Torah portion is the profound truth that God’s voice might be heard everywhere, at all times. It can be heard in the wild moments of unbearable beauty, and is available to us in the seemingly ordinary tasks that make up our lives.
As the Mishnah teaches, “Each and every day the Voice goes forth from Mount Sinai” (Avot 6:2). Back down from the mountain, it’s our sacred task to remember that the Voice continues to speak, even if sometimes it’s hard to hear, and to listen for the Divine voice not only in moments of grandeur but in the ordinary and the everyday.
Adina Allen, a 2014 graduate of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College, is co-founder and creative director of The Jewish Studio Project, a new organization that helps to empower Jewish adults to activate their creativity and claim their role as inheritors and innovators of the Jewish tradition. See more at www.jewishstudioproject.org.