Rabbinic Reflections: Arise & encounter

What if Moses wore a Fitbit or an Apple Watch when he went up Mount Sinai? Would all that data from 40 days (and a few backup batteries) help us understand his experience better? Would knowing how many steps up and down he took change our perspective? Would knowing his heart rate at the moment the 10 Commandments were given tell us how to feel? If he sent live tweets or instas would we feel closer to God?

I wrote the questions so clearly I think the kind of personal data we generate today could add something to our understanding of Moses’s encounter with God. I am just not sure the data would give us what we need. Knowing what it was like for Moses takes away from the opportunity to imagine what it would be like for each of us.

At the end of this month, Jews will celebrate the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot (literally, “Weeks”). The holiday marks the historical moment at Mount Sinai in which God first utters the 10 Commandments and the agricultural moment when the first fruits of the harvest can be offered. The holiday was so important in the time of the Temple that the ancient rabbis based the telling of the Exodus at the Passover seder on the verses Jews would know by heart from the repeat-after-me liturgy the priests would use on Shavuot. Think about that: a few verses recited once a year would be so well known that an entirely different holiday celebration could be based on it. Shavuot was the opposite of Snapchat.

These days, the holiday is better known for confirmation ceremonies and a time to eat cheesecake. In a world when the agricultural cycle is foreign even to those who do the grocery shopping, the meaning of Shavuot rests on the theophany at Mount Sinai. In today’s world, the imagery and impact of the biblical account on Mount Sinai stand in stark contrast to the social media sharing and data collecting way we live experiences today. A GoPro might help us experience Mount Sinai, but it would not help us encounter it.

The difference between an experience and an encounter centers on an encounter being unexpected. An experience is observable; we can describe and measure it in many different ways. An encounter is similar and yet some aspect will always be missing from the description; an encounter has a mysterious element. God’s appearance at Mount Sinai, the giving of the 10 Commandments, and the experience of Moses and the Israelites was an encounter. The text of Exodus struggles to convey the awesome nature of the events surrounding that moment. In the language of the academic study of religion, this awesomeness does not even have an English equivalent, it is called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (literally, the “tremendous and fascinating mystery”).

This year, in which technology has started to offer us the ability to measure our emotions in addition to our movement and heart rate; this year, in which the news cycle expanded to the weekend and breaks more often than some newscasters can keep up; this year, in which the weather has fluctuated wildly within a week; this year is the year when a holiday like Shavuot should remind us of our need to have encounters. This year, I invite you to find hope and beauty even in just the idea of a mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Exodus implies that Jews in every generation were/are/will be at Sinai; this year, I invite you to climb into a different headspace and to see what you encounter.

** The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the ownership or management of Chadds Ford Live. We welcome opposing viewpoints. Readers may comment in the comments section or they may submit a Letter to the Editor to editor@chaddsfordlive.com


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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.



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