Rabbi's Message, Rabbi Alvin Kass, January 2015
Rabbi Alvin Kass
Chief Chaplain of the NYPD
G-d Speaks To Man
Few would disagree that the Revelation of the Torah to Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai constituted the single most important event in the annals of the Jewish people.
When you reflect upon what the reality of Revelation implies, that God speaks directly to man, the mere thought of it is absolutely mind-boggling and overwhelming. It also raises very difficult and profound questions which have led some contemporary religious philosophers to dispense with the concept altogether.
They argue that religion is completely human in origin; that it may aim towards God but does not come from Him. While the issues raised are weighty and deserve serious attention, they can be resolved in a fashion which permits modern man to preserve this indispensable foundation of the Jewish faith.
Some contend it is implausible that the Creator of this huge and gigantic universe should go to the trouble to communicate with tiny and frail man. Such an argument, however, reflects a gross anthropomorphism, an ascription to God of human attributes. Just because people may be impressed by size and bulk, that doesn't mean that God makes His evaluations in the same way. Indeed, for all of man's smallness and ephemerality, everything we have learned about evolution leads us to the conclusion that human beings represent the highest form of life in the universe. The world has been in existence for many billions of years; and the processes of nature have been working all that time to make possible the emergence of the human species. It is not unreasonable to assume, therefore, that this culmination of the evolutionary process that we call man should be of great concern to His Maker. Others are troubled because the notion of Revelation implies that some individuals or groups are singled out to receive the divine message while the rest do not. It is hardly an idea which is comfortable for a democratic society which argues for the equality of all.
Certainly the Jews have borne a very heavy burden of suffering through the centuries because of their claim to be God's Chosen People. Nevertheless, the plain truth is that all human beings are not equally endowed. George Bernard Shaw has a far greater talent as a writer than the average man on the street.
Rembrandt possessed an artistic genius which exceeds that of the bulk of the human race. Mozart also composed better music than most of us who go to hear his compositions. Why and how genius emerges in some and not others eludes our understanding. But that it happens cannot be denied.
Maimonides said that the prophets, who all received revelations from God, were characterized by perfection of their intellectual, moral, and imaginative faculties; nevertheless, not all who possess such tripartite perfection become prophets. To be a prophet you have to be chosen by God. In selecting some, he rejects others. Thus, favoritism is an indisputable fact of life.
Undoubtedly, the most difficult problem connected to Revelation is the attempt to understand exactly what takes place at that crucial and decisive hour when God communicates to man. The events at Mount Sinai, when God revealed Himself to the Israelites, are described with great vividness: "Now Sinai was altogether on smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire. The sound of the trumpet became louder and louder; Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice."(Ex. 19:18-19). In spite of these statements, one rabbinic scholar asserted: "The Divine Presence never descended earthwards, nor did Moses or Elijah ever ascend to Heaven"(Sukkah 5A).
Such a comment suggests that we are to understand the Biblical account in poetic terms, as a metaphor.
This is further connoted by the Scriptural verse which proclaims that at the moment of Revelation "All the people saw the thunderings and lightnings." (Ex: 20:15). Now, of course, you cannot see thunder. Given the very careful and precise use of language in the Bible, the choice of the inappropriate verb "saw" must have been deliberate and is a way of saying that what we are encountering here is a figurative description rather than literal transcription of what took place on the top of Mount Sinai. It would be impossible to describe with any greater measure of precision what happens inside the mind of an Aristotle, a Picasso, a Beethoven, a Galileo or an Einstein at that instant when they experience a flash of inspiration. Yet, the reality of their genius, like the genius of Revelation, is indisputable.
At certain crucial moments in history, God communicates with certain select human beings and groups. Precisely and how we may never know. The phenomenon is shrouded in mysteries that may never be solved. But nothing entitles us more assuredly to claim that we are created in the image of God than the reality of Revelation.