Bringing Sinai into Our Lives: A Jewish Perspective

The Jewish people’s encounter with God at Mount Sinai is considered the most spiritual moment in Jewish history. The nation was one with God in a way that they never had been nor ever were again. There, it received the Torah, the book upon which Judaism is based that serves as a sort of blueprint or formula for closeness with God. In it, God outlines commandments and laws by which the Jewish people are meant to live. These commandments and laws are based on the Torah’s eternal values and create a unique lifestyle that fosters connection and intimacy with the Divine. They help a person strive towards the level of connection that the Jews experienced at Sinai — whether he was at Sinai or reads about it in the book of Exodus in 2017.

Deuteronomy states, “I make this covenant, with its sanctions, not with you alone. But both with those who are standing here with us this day before the LORD our God and with those who are not with us here this day”.[1] The Jewish commentators explain that “those who are not with us here today” are the future generations of Israelites. The Midrash Tanchuma, a 9th century rabbinic commentary, goes even further to say that when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, “all the souls were there, even when their bodies had still not been created.”[2] Whether or not one takes this literally, its message is clear. While only one generation physically witnessed the giving of the Torah, each Jewish person for eternity is supposed to have a stake in this covenant and feel as strong a connection as if God gave it over to him directly.

The formula for this connection is through living a Torah-centered life and observing God’s commandments (Hebrew: Mitzvot). The Torah lists 613 commandments which have been clarified by thousands of years of rabbinic tradition to formulate a distinct way of living. This lifestyle, based on the eternal values of the Torah, serves as the ultimate channel for connection to the Almighty. Though there are certainly other ways to be spiritual, the commandments were directly given by God and thereby serve as the truest and best way to connect to Him.

In modern society, some of the laws of the Torah might seem archaic. They have the potential to cause a person tremendous struggle and anguish. If one finds it burdensome to arise early each morning to pray[3] or to refrain from eating meat and milk together[4] the commandments will only make him less happy and distance him from God. But if one truly believes that this lifestyle is the ultimate truth that came directly from God, then it is the ultimate way to connect to Him. Those who understand the meaning behind God’s commandments and observe them with joy can bring back the spirituality and connection that the Israelites experienced at Sinai.

In the three thousand years since the giving of the Torah, Jews have been obsessed with scrutinizing its every detail, because we believe that an ultimate understanding will provide the most meaningful, Godly life. When one doesn’t understand the reasoning behind a commandment or struggles with an aspect of Jewish practice, there are thousands of rabbinic commentaries to which he can turn for clarity. These commentaries span millennia, from 2,000-year-old rabbinic works to modern internet blogs. Through these of commentaries and rulings on Jewish law, one can see the elasticity and adaptability of the Torah. A quick read of the Torah on its own might cause its reader to charge the book as old and irrelevant, but reading it alongside its commentaries shows both its eternality and its adaptability.

A prime example of this phenomenon is the Sabbath, or in Hebrew, Shabbat. The Torah commands that “the seventh day is a Sabbath for the Lord your God, you shall not do any work”.[5] In his 1951 book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says that “the Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man.”[6] Refraining from work fosters connection to God, by focusing on spiritual pursuits rather than physical ones.

Jewish tradition teaches that on Mount Sinai, God told Moses the 39 forms of work that are prohibited on Shabbat. These forms of work have remained the foundation of Shabbat observance for three thousand years, without addition or subtraction. The rabbis over the millennia have erected “fences” around these prohibitions, adding stringencies so that one should not accidentally transgress these forms of work.

With the advent of technology over the years, the rabbis have had to determine what is and isn’t permissible on Shabbat. It was determined that operating cars and manually using electricity are prohibited on Shabbat, as they are connected to various forms of work within the 39. For a twenty-five hour period starting every Friday evening, Shabbat observers don’t use phones and computers, don’t drive cars, and don’t watch TV.

When the Torah was first commanded, it could not prohibit technology usage on Shabbat, because this technology did not exist. However, it set a framework for its prohibition, which today has translated into making Shabbat an incredible day of rest and recharge. Without the intrusion of phones and the mobility of cars, loved ones come together for bonding that is unlike any other. In today’s fast-paced society, Shabbat unplugs us from the rest of the world and fosters reflection and connection with God and with one another.

Shabbat is just one example of a commandment that is based on the Torah’s eternal values and continues to apply to modern society. There are many others that function the same way. When God gave the Torah to the Jewish people, He did not just intend it for those physically standing at the bottom of the mountain. The Torah is God’s eternal wisdom and its commandments perpetually meaningful. Whether at Sinai or in 2017, God’s commandments are alive and elastic, providing the ultimate channel to connect with Him.

[1] Deuteronomy 29:13-14

[2] Midrash Tanchuma on Deuteronomy 29:13

[3] Rabbinic interpretation of Exodus 23:25

[4] Exodus 34:26 and then further qualified by rabbinic stringencies

[5] Exodus 20:10, Deuteronomy 5:14

[6] Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1951. The Sabbath, its meaning for modern man. New York: Farrar, Straus and Young.

Benji Dukas is a sophomore at Penn studying communications. Before coming to college, he spent a year of religious study in Jerusalem, and now serves as the Education Co-Chair at UPenn Hillel.