He gave to Moses—when he finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai—the two tablets of the covenant, stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God (Exodus 31:18).
So ended Moses’ forty-day audience with God on the cloud-covered mountain, shielded from all except those sages and poets who have ascended and continue to ascend to find themselves wondering over the mystery of the “summit” that lasted more than a month. Why so long? Why did it take forty days to give the tablets? Did Moses ask questions? Did God explain and expand the ten chiseled sayings? What finally brought the meeting to an end? Had everything been taught, asked, and answered?
The 3rd century teacher, Rabbi Abbahu, found himself viewing the scene this way:
Rabbi Abbahu said: The entire forty days that Moses spent on high, he would learn Torah and forget it. At the end, he said to God: Master of the world! Forty days have come and gone and I don’t know a thing! What did the blessed Holy One do? When forty days came to an end, he gave Moses the Torah as a gift, as it says: He gave to Moses—when he finished speaking with him (Exodus 31:18).
(Click here for the Midrash in Hebrew and English)
Rabbi Abbahu found himself recognizing that Torah could be gifted from on high, but only learned in the world of experience below. When God discerned that the mountain made Torah too abstract and distant for Moses to learn it, he brought the learning to an end and gave to Moses… the two tablets.
The Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, found herself singing the mystery of the summit:
The Torah not yet given, but already my father was sitting with Moses on the ground
teaching him Torah. The no-book shedding its light on them
presence and absence skipping between alef and bet.
Here were Moses and the Torah tasting one another, saying sheh-hecheyanu and sheh-hakol nih’yah bid’varo
and already, just like father taught him, Moses was beginning to call the God of his fathers,
Gottenyu, and Elohimaleh.
However, when God came to separate them
and to put the Torah in his storehouse until he wanted it
each va-yomer, va-y’he, and key tov were all gathered together
and Moses in whom a budding caress was again becoming a clenched fist
ranged back and forth in the splash of the storehouse shadow moving his lips with no sound
trying to repeat the Torah by heart until he could write it.
(Click for Rivka Miriam’s poem in Hebrew and English)
The ancient sage and the modern poet found themselves on Sinai not in the sense of an unintended destination, but in the sense of self-awareness. Rabbi Abbahu found himself setting aside forty difficult days and celebrating the moment when the divine teacher turned the limitation of the student into a promising beginning. This was the giving of Torah.
The opposite of Rabbi Abbahu, Rivka Miriam found that it was in the timeless days on Sinai that Torah was fully present in an uncompleted way. She never described the formal giving that was central to her ancient counterpart. For Rivka Miriam, Torah was literally in the air. Time and senses were fused and confused. Presence and absence flickered in the unfastened letters of the not-yet-book. Moses and Torah tasted one another like new fruits and blessed the tasting with blessings always, but not yet, existing. At the same time, Moses learned from Rivka’s father how to call God by tenderly inflected nicknames.
Rabbi Abbahu and Rivka Miriam found themselves valuing the Torah of different Sinai moments. However, they did cross paths on the heights of anxiety, edging towards the chasm between the no-book and the book. Rabbi Abbahu felt the press of bounded time together with the growing mountain of information hanging over Moses’ head. Rivka Miriam relished the hour-less days. But on the eve of formal giving, unbounded Torah words were sorted, stacked, and stored. Then, the budding, open-handed caress of unexplained knowing tightened into a clenched fist of white-knuckled anxiety in the shadow of the storehouse. Both Rabbi Abbahu and Rivka Miriam prized long days rather than frantic hours. Both valued Torah given by tasting rather than testing. But for Rabbi Abbahu, only the gifted Torah in hand could create such spacious conditions. For Rivka Miriam, the Torah in hand ended a time of boundless learning.
Rabbi Abbahu and Rivka Miriam represent a millennium and a half of pilgrims who find themselves on the mountain. On Shavuot, we pilgrims hope to scale the mountain image with our own imagination, just like the sage and the poet. Each of us traveling in our own direction reaches the mountain to find the self that each has brought.
I direct Seivah: Jewish Life Beyond Memory (beyond memory.org), devoted to helping people with dementia to continue to flourish spiritually. When I readRabbi Abbahu’s midrash, thanks to the way you placed it, I thought of one of my volunteers who studies Torah with a man with dementia. Every session the man takes copious notes; by the beginning of the next session–every time–he’s forgot what the notes refer to. Tragic? Not according to him. He enjoys the moment, the connection, the “tasting,” not the “testing,” as you so aptly called, Steve. Beautiful.
Shabbat shalom and chag sameach-and thanks for providing what I know will be thoughtful and soulful insights.