Sunday, 5 June 2011

Is Mount Sinai an impostor?

On Shavuot we celebrate the most momentous event in our history the Zeman Matan Torateinu- the time of the giving of the Torah.

Yet, a comment that I would like to make is that- in the Jewish world we don’t make any big deal about Mt Sinai.

If I were to travel deep into the Sinai desert to find the Mountain, I would come across- in the place which is presumed to be Mt Sinai; St Catherine’s monastery on its base and, as I climb up the 3750 steps to its summit, I would discover an Islamic shrine and a Greek Orthodox Church. However, in that place where we Jews witnessed the revelation of G-d – experienced the greatest event in our history, there’s no Synagogue or Jewish plaque to commemorate the event. Indeed how many Jews can say they have been to Mt Sinai?

Of course there is room to say that the Mt Sinai or Jabal Musa- as the Bedouin call it, in the Sinai Peninsula is not the right place. Look at the story in the Torah, Mt Sinai is synonymous with Har HaElokim- the Mountain of G-d. Moshe was tending his sheep in the desert near Midian, and he goes up the Mountain, according to the Midrashic account he was running after a stray sheep, and on the Mountain he sees the burning bush:

Asher einunu ukal- that was not consumed

He was told by G-d:

Shaal naalecha me-al raglecha”- “remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground”.

Important information- the place is holy ground.After G-d had delivered His message of salvation to Moshe, He said the words:

“Behotziacha et ha-am mimitzraim ta-avdun et haelokim al hahar hazeh”

“When you take out the people from Egypt- you will serve G-d on this mountain”.

Notice the accentuation: The mountain in the wilderness, near Midian, where Moshe had witnessed the Burning Bush, would become the Mountain on which the Children of Israel would serve.

The Mt Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula could be an impostor, it is far too removed from historic Midian to be the place where the Torah was given. Midian was near Edom – near what we call today Southern Jordan. Indeed it was Yitro the Priest of Midian who came to Moshe in the desert to support him at Sinai, if it was a long slog why would he come that far?

Indeed there is no archaeological evidence of an encampment of 1 ½ million people or thereabouts that took place around the area of what is known as Mt Sinai. Remember, they remained there from Rosh Chodesh Sivan in the first year till 20th Iyar in the second year. A period of eleven months and twenty days- they must have made quite an impact on the immediate environment. And in the Torah, after crossing the Red Sea it doesn’t say that they turned south to Mt Sinai.

So it makes sense that the place which is thought to be Mt Sinai is not the right place.

Archaeologists have found a number of places that could be good contenders for Mt Sinai: in the Negev there is a site called Har Karkom where lots of little encampments around the mountain have been found. Or in Saudi Arabia there is a now dormant volcano with an abundance of archaeological artefacts and encampments, dating from that era. Or in Petra there is a mountain call Jabal al Medlich which could also be a good contender.

However with all this information-the truth is that in the Jewish world we don’t make a great big fuss about the site of Mt Sinai. In any of these places there is no plaque to say that Here G-d gave the Torah to the Jews and we don’t go en masse on religious pilgrimages to any of these sites.


Look at the Torah reading from Shavuot: It was the third day of Sivan; Moshe was instructed by G-d to set boundaries around the Mountain saying:

“Hishamru lachem alot bahar- unegoah bekatzehu” “Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge- whoever touches the mountain shall surely die”.

“A hand shall not touch it, for he shall surely be stoned or thrown down- whether animal or person he shall not live”.

Quite heavy stuff.

G-d is about to give Torah on Mt Sinai; The Mountain is Holy. Whilst revelation is taking place you’re not allowed up the Mountain, it’s a capital offence punishable by death.

But read on...”Bimshoch hayovel hemah yaalu bahar” “Upon an extended blast of the Shofar –they may ascend the mountain”.

From death to life. After revelation is over, and the all clear blast of the Shofar is sounded not only do they not receive any punishment, but they may ascend the Mountain. The mountain is no longer holy. Revelation, the giving of the Torah is over.

Normal service resumes.

During the time of the Giving of the Torah- the revelation at Sinai –when G-d’s Shechina- His Divine presence was there, then the Mountain was holy, but after revelation the mountain goes back to normal. And for that reason when G-d revealed His presence at the Burning Bush on that very same Mountain He told Moshe to remove his shoes because it was holy ground. It was a time when the Shechina was present, but once revelation had ended the Mountain no longer had the holy status.

I think this gives us tremendous insight into the nature of holiness. The mountain in and of itself is not intrinsically holy. We do not make idol worship out of a mountain.

Whilst the Shechina is there- the Mountain is holy. Remove the Shechina and there is no longer Kedusha, and for that reason we no longer make a big deal of Sinai.

So what’s the message?

It’s either got to be input from G-d or from man to provide the Kedushah. If the input ceases then there is no kedusha.

Example: A Sefer Torah is written by an expert scribe called a sofer Mumcha. But what happens if it is written by somebody who has a wonderful handwriting- His Ketav is beautiful-and he’s an expert at his craft - but he actually doesn’t believe in the words of the Torah? He’s a skeptic and he actually voices his non belief. The Halacha is that the Torah is Passul- it cannot be used – because it has no Kedushah.

What happens if you have a beautiful Shul- architecturally very attractive history oozing out of its very fabric. But if the Shul is not used for Kedushah- we don’t use it to bring the Shechinah here- we don’t daven properly with kevana or we don’t learn Torah- so a Shul also can lose its Kedusha status.

Perhaps that was why G-d gave us the Torah in a desert on a mountain to teach us that we need to bring the Kedushah in our lives – in our homes- wherever we might be- by our own contribution- by making this world a place worthy of Kedushah

Chag Sameach

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