It is close to four a.m. and along with thousands of people I am walking, almost running, towards the Kotel on Shavu'ote morning. It is still dark out, the air still cold and a sense of urgency swirling all around. Like ants making their way out of their hole, so too we squirm our way out of the batei midrash (study halls) and homes where we had spent the night learning. Preparing to receive the Torah. For many years this was the path of the journey. You stay up all night preparing and then you run to the mountain to receive the Torah.
One more thing would happen every year. As I was making my way, I would try to imagine how I would wake up my children to receive the Torah. How could I make it the sweetest wake up they ever experienced? What would I tell them as we made our way to Mt. Sinai? How could I protect them from the horde of people running on all sides? Would I have the wisdom to know what to tell each and every one of them (and in my imagination there were many)? Did I know my children well enough to help them carve a space in their minds and hearts to hear and see and experience the magnitude of the revelation?
But for the last few years my questions have changed when I think about approaching the mountain and receiving the Torah, as we will this coming Shabbat. Indeed the one remnant we still hold on to from all the way back then, is the tradition to stand as the p'sukim / verses of the Ten Commandments are being read. I'm much less concerned about GETTING TO the mountain as I am concerned of making MY WAY FROM the mountain. It's not only about beating traffic, though the dilemma of missing the last song at the concert is always a poignant one (imagine leaving with only nine commandments).
The question I live with now is how do we leave? With what? How do we prepare ourselves to be able to walk from Matan Torah / the 'giving of the Torah' and return to our lives? It is not only here that I find myself with this challenge. I question this regarding the Cohen Gadol, the High Priest - how did he exit the Holy of Holies every year on Yom Kippur? The first chapter of Mishna Yoma deals with preparing him for his service on Yom Kippur. The Talmud and the commentaries stress the centrality of his service and the sub-sections of the chapter are read with a growing sense of trepidation and seclusion. He is secluded from his home and family for the seven days leading up to Yom Kippur; there is a list of who is with him at what part of the week, and even the different segments of the night leading to the morning of service. The moment he enters the Holy of Holies he is ALONE with the AL(L)-ONE. And then what? How does one continue with their life after such an encounter?
The one taste we have of what it means to live through that moment is in the parallel chapter of the Tosefta, when the Cohen Gadol's understudy serves in his stead one year. The understudy, upon exiting the Holy of Holies after the service of Yom Kippur, portrays the tragic moment of not being able to return to who he was, for he is no longer that person that entered the Holy of Holies, and yet he was only the understudy - so this means that he isn't the Cohen Gadol either! The tragedy of Yoseph ben Aylim, our named understudy, is the way that he is left in limbo with no true way to embrace his new life.
When Yoseph ben Aylim challenges the rabbis as to his painful status they retort back at him: "Is it not sufficient that you have served for one moment in the presence of 'the One that Spoke and the World was Created'?" It is not hard to read into his name that he is a sacrifice himself - Yoseph, the son of the Rams (Aylim), the same ram that was offered instead of Yitzchak / Issac. Just as the ram was offered instead of Yitzchak, so too, he is being offered.
This is the existential question that Yoseph ben Aylim challenges us with - who are we after we have experienced peak experiences? Is there a way to return to our lives as they were the moment before? Are we meant to? How do we grow into, embrace, the new portrait of our life?
It is for this reason I shifted in my thinking - more important than getting to the mountain, creating the possibility to experience the moment, is the responsibility to find the path that avails us to return to our lives. Changed, never the same, but yet our lives.
I believe that is for this reason the closing paragraph of our parsha, the conclusion of the Torah portion that brings us to Matan Torah, is the direction we need in walking away from the mountain.
We are taught that what it is that God seeks (Sh'mote/Exodus 20:19-23) is not an alter, a manifestation of the divine in gold or silver, but rather one of plain and simple earth. The Mei HaShiloach (Reb Mordechai Yoseph Lainer of Ishbitza, 1800-1853) likens gold and silver to awe, trepidation, exaltation, love, that are not fitting our status and stand in the world. "Miz'bach Adama" / an alter, a platform of simple earth is what God is asking of us.
It seems that the way to promise ourselves an integrated life is by being honest with who we are and what the nature of our relationship with the Divine is. If we show our true faces in the presence of God, then we will indeed be able to walk away, walk forward, with the imprint of the encounter upon ourselves. It is the honesty that holds the potential of integration and growth.
So maybe I actually still am interested in how one makes their way to the mountain.