No-one knew what was happening. The old man had gone, up the mountain, up into the clouds. Someone said it would make no difference, he'd always had his head in the clouds. We were a sceptical people, even then. And time has not mellowed us. Neither time nor history. If anything we have become even more stiff-necked, because of our history and over time, more cynical about leaders who think they have the answers, think they have a hot-line to holiness, a route-map to the promised land.
Nowadays, don’t we always know better, we chosen people? Who needs the Law laid down from on high when, with our yiddische kop, we know so much already?
But on that day, no-one knew what was happening. He’d disappeared, up into the mountain, to meet old El himself, or newer gods, or trim his beard and think his lofty thoughts, or - who knows? – just to get away from us unruly rabble. Six hundred thousand of us, they said – but, nu, who’s counting? We’re storytellers, no? Mythographers, with license to tell it as we want, embroider here and there, true to the imagination - not like those number-crunching Levite accountants, pestering the old man with their worries about a desert journey without relief or benefits that anyone could see. About one thing though, we were sure: nothing good would come of this. The sun smote us by day, the moon chilled us by night, and death sung lullabies of Egypt in our ear.
The rumours began as soon as he’d gone, flashing through the camp like lightning, yet illuminating nothing except our fears: some said his heart was weak and he’d gone off like a wounded goat to die...others said he wanted to enslave us yet again, to a different god... then there were stories that he’d left in a huff after quarrelling with his brother...even that he’d been killed by the riffraff who’d joined our great escape...we had stories aplenty, but as usual we knew nothing.
The boldest amongst us predicted something else - ‘a moment of destiny’, the scribes insisted, ‘when the future will be revealed’. That was too glib for me, too pious: how could a nation’s fate be transformed through words alone, words narrated from on high by some unseen author(ity) dictating how things have to be? What chutzpah we possess to tell the tale that way, that we alone were called, that we must live the story to the end of days. But so it turned out - though at the time we only glimpsed the script in shadow, as if through a glass, darkly.
Actually, what remains in the mind’s eye is the weather. We'd left in a hurry, remember, in the springtime - overcoats discarded and umbrellas not yet invented - and here we were, six weeks out of Egypt, in the desert, high summer, and there was thunder and lightning and torrents of rain as if Shaddai himself was storming the heavens and then from out of nowhere a whirling and rumbling in our ears like the grinding of a titanic battle and on the third day trembling storms of dust, clouds of dust and sand, thick clouds of sand and smoke, in your eyes so they could not see, in your mouth so you dared not speak, in your ears so you couldn't hear yourself think, dust ascending as in a flaming furnace, the earth shuddering beneath our feet, our world afire, tumult in our hearts, and from all around a sound, reverberating, a sound pounding us, bonding us, a sound finding us, founding us...
But wait, we are not ready for that...
We who were left at the foot of the mountain - a great multitude of disparate souls yet bound together as if one family - for us, heaven assaulting our senses, there was a single desire, overwhelming, all-consuming: survival. How to protect ourselves from the quaking storm of the flaming furnace of unendurable heat? How to resist the looming mountain - seemingly alive and inescapable - held over our heads as if to crush us with its awesome gravity? How to endure the unendurable? The people waited, cowering, submissive, while the unbearable went on unbearably - as it does – the people waiting for something else to happen: waiting for death, or revelation, or someone to appear from offstage and - deus ex machina, as it were – restore some hope to our bewildered hearts.
Where was Moses? When would he return? Would he ever return? It was then that we realised how much we needed him. We were lost without him. Lost in the desert of course - some said we were at Sinai, others said Horeb, while a few refused to give the place a name at all, for we could have been anywhere – but we were also lost in another, graver sense. We were lost psychologically - a word we did not even know then, but have become familiar with since, during the long journey away from there to distant lands and cooler climes.
On that day we needed our leader more than we'd ever realised. But if we're honest, we can see how we've always needed a leader to follow, to obey, to tell us what to do, to take away the unbearable responsibility of personal decision. In this, we chosen people are no different from the rest. Moses or Mao, Vladimir Ilyich or Golda, in our hearts we crave a leader, strong and with vision, man or woman, someone who will protect us and inspire us, give us a sense of purpose and belonging. In all of us there is still the child, vulnerable, defenceless, who looks outside for help, for salvation, for security and answers. We were well-named in our saga - 'the children of Israel'. That’s us, still emotional orphans, still looking outside ourselves for someone to tell us how to live. But on that day he had gone - up the mountain, into the clouds.
It may be hard now, looking back, to appreciate what his shepherding had meant to us. You see, we owed him everything: our freedom, obviously; but more than that he was teaching us stuff, revealing new laws for new times, he was changing the way we thought. Everything was his doing, his inspiration, his creation. Remember that it was Moses who had broken our bondage to the status quo by challenging the all-controlling god-like rulers of our land - in the name of freedom, and justice. “Let my people go!” – the slogan captured our hearts and minds. The excitement of those days is impossible to convey. So long oppressed and now participating in what, even as it was happening, we knew was one of the great events in recorded time: the rise of a downtrodden people, a total break with a dishonourable past, and the promise - oh, so seductive - the promise of a new and enlightened society where a daily life of decency, compassion and comradeship would at last prevail. What a vision he had! Sheer inspiration. True, he could be frightening to behold – but he taught us how to live with one another in ways unenslaved by the past. No wonder some call him Rabbenu. We will never see his like again.
And the miracle of it is how, in different lands, in different ages, our story recurs: the myth humanity craves is re-created, the impulse towards justice and freedom keeps being renewed, as if it were an eternal spirit always alive within the human soul, a divine spark waiting to flare into being. The contemporaneity of the past: the vision of a society based on cooperation rather than competition. That’s what he gave us. That’s what we were given.
But on that day, the first time, there was only the huddled masses, and the storm within us and around us. And then we heard it. Each man, each woman, each child, alone, heard that sound. 600,000 and more, together, we heard that sound that pierced us and stilled us and silenced the storm around us and the quaking within us.
We had never heard that sound before - and yet we knew it, as you know it still. It was a call, a summons - primeval, insistent, yearning - a cry from deep within time, hidden in our memories, there from the very beginning, before the beginning, waiting to be heard, a sound primitive and immediate, stripping us bare, hollowing us out, hallowing us into peoplehood.
The sound of the shofar - though we only learnt its name later on, when we tamed its call and used it to proclaim our new moons and holy days, or rally the troops. A sound like no other sound. An unearthly sound. A terrible, forlorn sound, wrenching the heart out of us, wrenching the heart back into us, it went on and on, reverberating inside our skulls, beating against our eyes, forcing them to open, to open and see that this moment was destined to go on for as long as time endures, so that in every place this sound was heard, in every community the shofar sounded, it was but an echo, a memory, of that first time, at Sinai - or wherever - when God spoke (in a ‘voice’, the texts later said) but to us it was a sound, the sound of eternity vocalising the Eternal One - ‘I AM, Eternal, divine...’ - God’s shofar voice echoing ceaselessly within each human being: hear, return, remember, pay attention - this is the purpose of your life, your origin, your destiny. This is your Torah. I plant it within you.
This is what we heard. I was there at the beginning and I will be there at the end, alpha and omega, aleph and tav. I AM what I AM.
We all heard it. It came to shake our certainties, to unsettle our complacency, our too-comfortable understandings, our easy answers, our lazy presumptions. Farewell to surefootedness. That divine voice, carrying its message of liberation and hope into a world scared to receive it, scared because the voice seemed to promise so much. Who could allow themselves to hope such sacred promises could ever be fulfilled? We have carried this message of hope like a yoke around our necks – burdened by a revelation in which we also rejoice. It weighs us down, we try to shake ourselves free, but we are bound for life, bound to live in its shadow. Bondsmen yet again.
We received a vision in those days the like of which has, perhaps, never been seen since. It was a challenge to perfection, of a sort, a utopian dream of a society ordered under the rule of God, where human beings would overcome their egotism and vanity, their greed, their pettiness, their inability to see beyond the next milestone, and would create communities bounded in trust. The Torah - God's dream for us, and the embodiment of our dream of God. Its idealism has never been surpassed. And its idealism has never been achieved. The Torah announced an extraordinary experiment in human community: the earth is God's property which has been made available for all of us; it is not to be exploited for the enrichment of some to the detriment of others. And as servants of God we should not remain enslaved to any other human being or social system.
What an unattainable vision that was. Yet it reverberated through the prophetic books and echoes inside Western consciousness until this very day. That corrosive pressure to surpass ourselves, to ensure that the prophetic passion for justice and the absence of oppression is not only an ideal but is transformed into action here and now. The Torah dream remains magnetic. The Torah dream still summons us to renounce selfishness, worldly comfort and unbridled individualism, and merge our personal being into that larger vision of community.
It is said that at Sinai, God's voice split into 70 voices and 70 languages, so that all the nations should hear and understand. A universal message. And it spoke to each of us who was there - and were we not all there? - to each of us in our own private language, intimate and knowing, searching us through and through, claiming us for itself, inscribing within us an indelible hopefulness about what we might become. A terrible and blessed burden, that memory, that hope.
Some say that God’s voice at Sinai never ceased, never ceases. That if we stop a while and listen, really listen (shema, Yisrael), we can hear its echo still. That if we find a way of being still, we can hear its echo still. Well, that’s what they say, those storytellers of old, those dreamers - and who are we to disagree?
[Sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, June 8th 2011]