With an open mind

Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.


Sermons and Thoughts

On Revelation

29 May 2020
Rabbi Lea Mühlstein
Sermon Shavuot

At Pesach we asked – Mah nishtanah ha-layla ha-zeh mi-kol ha-leylot? How is this night different from all other nights? Back than we thought how different it was that we were celebrating Pesach over Zoom all locked up at home. I think not many of us did imagine that we would reach Shavuot and find ourselves in almost the same place, if not literally the same place, as on Pesach. The past 49 days of the Omer period have been challenging in many different ways but they have also provided us with huge opportunities.

Who could have imagined that NPLS would be able to host a Shavuot study evening, the traditional Tikkun Leil, featuring twelve sessions and partnering with Liberal synagogues around the UK, Europe, Israel and Canada? The fact that we have all been forced to interact with each other via screens has allowed us to invite speakers without concern for geographic distance and has provided us with the opportunity to reach with our services and events literally thousands who would never normally have had the opportunity to step through our doors.

Today we celebrate Shavuot – the festival of revelation! What we do as a synagogue – be it services, study sessions or care events –may not be revelation as we traditionally understand it, but we hope that the moments that bring us together allow us all to catch a glimpse of revelation – to feel God’s nearness. And so let’s explore what we might be able to learn from the biblical texts associated with Shavuot to help us respond better to our current reality.

If we begin with the best known of the three, Exodus 19-20, revelation is a communal experience. As Dr. Elsie R. Stern of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College observes: “The whole people is there and although Moshe is the go-between, the relationship that is struck is clearly the relationship between God and the entire community, as a community. The focus of God’s revelation here, the purpose of God appearing before the people, is for the formation of the Covenant. God isn’t there just to introduce God’s self, but is there to enter into this arrangement with the people.”
The choice of Exodus 19 and 20 focuses on the founding of the relationship between Israel and God and the terms of the deal, culminating in the Ten Commandments. God appears as a voice, but you don’t see the divine presence. This is a highly orchestrated moment of revelation culminating in the Covenant and in the Commandments.

In contrast, Ezekiel, in this morning’s Haftarah, experiences revelation alone. His is a private experience. Sinai in its own way was supernatural. There was lightning, and there was earthquakes and maybe something volcanic. It was nature at its biggest, but not really supernatural. Revelation in Ezekiel is truly supernatural and, lets say it as it is, rather weird. It’s not auditory, it’s visual. When God reveals God’s self in this imagining, it comes through the eyes, not through the ears. There’s no law, there’s no covenant, there’s no setting of norms. This isn’t revelation for the purpose of pedagogy or for the purpose of behaviour management, this is merely an experience.

And what about Ruth—the megillah, the scroll—for Shavuot? While God is not altogether absent—probably the most famous passage is Ruth’s plea:
‘Entreat me not to leave you, or to turn back from following after you! For where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. …’ —the book does not seem to be overly concerned with theology. There is no Mount Sinai, no psychedelic vision. Instead God creeps up and starts to percolate in the relationships between human beings. Relationships of kindness, but also relationships of social obligation.

Dr. Stern argues convincingly that for Ruth, God reveals God’s self in two places, both in the relationships of hesed, but also in those social systems that are designed to protect the disenfranchised – enabling Ruth the glean the corners of the field to provide food for herself and Naomi. Revelation in the story of Ruth occurs in the moments when, to use the 19th century German Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s terminology, we enter an I-Thou relationship—the type of relationship that is not contractual, not for a purpose but rather a true encounter with another human being and ultimately God.

Bringing these three radically different modes of revelation together on Shavuot, I think the rabbis wanted to teach us about the important place of each and every one of them. There is no single mode of revelation that trumps another.

So what can we learn from these three modes of revelation for our current reality?

I think the first lesson is that we need to be able to offer different type of experiences – those that feel like thunder echoing in our chest as the Israelites must have felt at Sinai, those that inspire awe and wonder like Ezekiel’s vision as well as the quiet, almost hidden moments that will allow us to hear God’s whisper in our ear as Ruth experienced.

We also need to understand that some of the things we will offer, will form the beginning of a covenant between us and those who join us, whereas others will just be experiences – precious, memorable gifts that people will take with them, even if they do not return to us.

And finally, we need to be clear about what we want to achieve and to use the right means to get there. The marvels of technology provide us with so many options from zoom to live stream to pre-recorded to a simple phone call. And even during this period of social distancing, we can still reach out person-to-person.

We can create Sinai moments and I-thou experiences – in our face-to face interactions and mediated by technology. In the 49 days since Pesach as we counted the days of the Omer and the days of enforced self-isolation, we have recognised that there is no going back. We have opened our doors even if they might look shut. Whatever we do moving forward, we will continue to be reaching beyond the congregation that is physically present in our building. And we must continue to challenge ourselves to see everything we do as an opportunity for revelation, to instil a love for Liberal Judaism that shapes the future of Jewish life. All we need to decide is if we want it to feel like Sinai, Ezekiel or Ruth!