When we read about what would appear to be the pinnacle of man's quest for spirituality G-d's revelation to the entire Jewish people at Sinai we must really wonder. Beyond the revelation itself, we are told that the lowest of the Jews saw things at the splitting of the sea that would not be revealed to even the greatest of our prophets. Yet if the Sinai experience was really such a highpoint in spirituality, why is it that these very same ancestors came to such a dismal end?
It is not just that they died in the desert, a fate ultimately shared by their indisputably great leaders, Moshe and Aharon. The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 11:2) tells us that it was much worse Rabbi Akiva posits that this generation did not even merit a share in the world to come. This is a rather strong statement, especially in view of who else shares this dubious distinction, unsavory folks such as those from generation of the flood and that of the Tower of Babel.
Even though we could posit that the Jews who stood at Sinai were judged with a higher standard, or that the transition from Egyptian immorality and slavery was too formidable, it is still hard to say that either of these things would result in so final a punishment as eternal death certainly not for people on so high a spiritual level as we would expect from the generation of Sinai. If this were not enough to make us pause, it is worth noting that the mass revelation engineered by Eliyahu on Mount Carmel also failed to provide any long-term religious benefits to the Jews who witnessed it.
Sometimes when our assumptions create questions that seem to defy answers, it is worth reviewing our original assumptions: We generally assume that even if the Sinai generation did not necessarily merit perceiving G-d's revelation, the positive religious impact of this event must have been very great indeed. Certainly more than one person has wished that G-d would reveal Himself today, thinking such an event would give our faith such a boost that we would almost never sin again. Such thinking notwithstanding, our tradition seems to show that revelation is not as determining an experience as we might assume.
The generation that stood at the foot of Mount Sinai obviously believed that they saw and heard G-d speaking to them and demanding behavior that corresponds to a life lived in front of Him. The question is not whether they believed that they saw and heard this, but how much they chose to believe it. When the golden calf was formed only forty days later, it was anathema to the revelation that they had just witnessed. In spite of this, it appears that there was little opposition to it. The revelation was pushed away by doubt into the latter recesses of their minds. It is clear that even at Sinai, then, the Jews must have had a choice to withhold complete and final judgment on the veracity of such a powerful sensory experience as they had undergone.
We often parrot the words ‘seeing is believing’, but rarely examine the meaning of such a statement. Without a doubt, we are more likely to believe the truth of something that we can perceive with our own senses. Still there are times we know that our senses mislead us something illustrated most pointedly by optical illusions, among other phenomena. The result is that our minds that serve as the ultimate arbiter as to when we believe what we see and when we don't. The more apparently supernatural a phenomenon we see, the more our minds tell us to question what it is that we are really seeing. This in itself is highly appropriate, as we have good reason to question our witnessing of something highly unlikely. Yet, it is not only our rational sense that causes us to deny our sense perceptions.
After all, it is not our senses that bring about belief or disbelief it is something much deeper and more fundamental. It is innate and intuitive response of identification with G-d's presence in the world. It is the same response we have to natural beauty. When we see a sunset or a beautiful landscape, or hear pleasant music, we are moved by the depth, complexity and harmony that is innate in it and we undergo an internal experience not connected to the sensual experience per se. Yet even this universal experience can be denied as emotional nonsense if we try hard enough. In the same way that we can deny experiences we know to be very deeply true, we can deny religious faith.
Perhaps this more than anything else is the choice placed in front of us: To assert what we intuit as truth, or to deny it. Asserting the truth of G-d's presence in the world puts us in a situation that our rabbis illustrate with the metaphor of having a mountain (as in Sinai) over our head, forcing us to do G-d's will. This is an obviously intense and uncomfortable situation. Much, though certainly not all, of the history of religious denial is about escaping that situation.
It is in line with this that Tosefot explains that it is paradoxically more difficult to perform G-d's will when a person feels commanded to do so.* After all, the same Divine image which allows us to have free choice,** that also tempts us to rebel when we feel the freedom and loftiness of that choice taken away. Yet it is precisely in this tension that the Jew must live. He must choose to come to the point where he has no choice. He must feel G-d's presence in so clear a fashion as to feel no choice but to do His commandments.***
The difficulty of choosing to give up one's choice is shown by the fate of the very generation that should have had the easiest time making such a decision. And so the rabbis understand that the Jews sought to run away from Sinai as quickly as possible. Even after they atoned for the sin of the golden calf, the discomfort of living in the shadow of Mount Sinai and what it represented was overwhelming. Apparently, they felt it was better to move on and allow for the possibility of denial of that which we all intuit to be true.
The truth is that G-d reveals Himself at every moment through the incredible beauty, harmony and complexity of the natural world around us. The same can be said about the depth and beauty of the Torah itself, which reveals G-d's presence when we apply ourselves to its study. Yet while we may perceive G-d's presence, we end up choosing whether and how much to believe it. As with the Sinai generation, it is actually often the question of how much and not whether that is central to our religious lives.
Rabbi Akiva's judgment of the Sinai generation is one we had best take to heart. Religious truth is intuitive its denial artificial. Faith ultimately has very little to do with sense perception it has everything to do with our reaction to those perceptions. It appears that Rabbi Akiva is telling us that it is these reactions, which ultimately determine the future of our souls. Perhaps this is because it is our very souls that are the source of our recognition of G-d in this world. When we listen to our souls, we no doubt sustain them when we deny the response of our souls, however, it is likely that we kill them. Once a soul is dead, it is logical for there to be nothing left to inherit the completely soulful life of the world to come. An important choice indeed.
* Tosefot Kiddushin 31a.
** See Seforno on Bereshit 1:26, who understands free choice as the very meaning of being created in the Divine likeness (i.e. demut).
*** see R. Eliyahu Dessler, Michtav mEliyahu, vol. 1, pp. 111-117, who understands the issue of free choice in very similar fashion.