In these few words, Heschel channels and summarizes an ancient rabbinic interpretive tradition. The Torah’s phrase, “The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain” (Exodus 19:20), describes the Shekhinah, the aspect of God that keeps the Israelites company throughout their journey. As an early Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai) puts it “When Israel went down to Egypt, Shekhinah went down with them; when they encamped at the sea, Shekhinah was with them; when they came to the wilderness, Shekhinah was with them.” When they gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, we might add, Shekhinah was with them.
“There are two aspects of the Sinai event: revealing the Shekhinah and giving the Torah.” So suggests Abraham Joshua Heschel in his encyclopedic magnum opus Torah Min ha-Shamayim b’Espaklaria shel ha-Dorot (Heavenly Torah As Refracted Through the Generations). The Hebrew is (somehow both) terse and poetic: Sh’tei b’hinot b’ma’aseh Sinai – Two aspects/factors/vectors/elements of the gathering of the children of Israel at Mount Sinai. Gilui Shekhinah v’Matan Torah – revelation of Shekhinah (the indwelling feminine aspect of God) and the giving (or gift) of Torah. The latter Heschel calls instruction (hora’ah); the former he titles redemption (t’shuah).
Heschel’s sequence, which mirrors that of the Torah, is deeply significant. The Shekhinahembraces and envelopes the people. In later Jewish thought, Kabbalah and Hasidism most notably, the Shekhinah takes on maternal qualities and attributes. She nurtures, empathizes with, cries with, rejoices with, the people, present at every step along the way. Embrace and nurture precede instruction. One hugs one’s kids first; explicit teaching comes later.
So what happened at Sinai? First (and foremost!) our ancestors met the Shekhinah. They learned that they were not alone; they felt the love. Then, they received the gift of Torah, Divine wisdom and instruction. Compassion first, commandment second. As we mark the Sinai moment this Shabbat, how might we access the Shekhinah’s presence? A beautiful passage from the Zohar (2:163b) offers a lovely and compelling answer.
“Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Yehudah, and Rabbi Hiyya were traveling on the road, and Rabbi El’azar met them. As soon as they saw him, they all dismounted from their donkeys. Rabbi El’azar said, ‘Surely I have seen the face of Shekhinah! For when one sees the righteous or virtuous of the generation and meets them, they are surely the face of Shekhinah. Why are they called the face of Shekhinah? Because Shekhinah is hidden within them: She is in concealment and they are revealed, for those close to Shekhinah are called Her face. And who are they? Those with whom She adorns Herself to appear before the supernal King. Now, since you are here, surely Shekhinah is arrayed upon you, and you are Her face.’”
When we meet one another, face to face, we meet Shekhinah. Then we’re ready and able to receive the gift of Torah.