Leyl Shavuot, 2017

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I am here tonight to talk about Revelation at Sinai …but mostly, I want to talk about ways of perception… We have 5 senses: Seeing, hearing, tasting, touching and smelling

How do we and God relate to each other using our senses…and which ones?

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch groups the five senses into two categories.

Two of the five senses, touching and tasting, require direct and intense contact with what one is sensing. Otherwise, one cannot say that one knows how something tastes or feels.

In serious contrast to this are the senses of sight and sound. When one hears or sees something, there is absolutely no direct interaction with the thing being perceived.

But into which of these two categories does the sense of smell fall? Both.

Let’s start here: How does one smell things? What actually enters into one’s nose? When it comes to touch or taste, the object itself comes into contact with the sensors. With sight, only light hits the retina; with hearing, only sound waves hit the eardrum. And smell?

The tiniest molecules of, say, roasted meat enter into one’s nostrils. The object could be quite a few feet away, yet the smallest bits of this object do indeed enter the nose upon smelling. It is not full direct interaction, but it is not zero interaction either (this according to Devir Kahan is the Editor of Daf Aleph).

What’s with smell?
Smell is the loftiest & most transcendent sense. In Temple days there was a special altar for the Ketoret incense offering. On Yom Kippur, in addition, the high priest would enter the Holy of Holies …(nose first, mind you)…with a pan of smoldering coals in his right hand, and a ladle filled with ketoret in his left; there, he would scoop the ketoret into his hands, place it over the coals, wait for the chamber to fill with the fragrant smoke of the burning incense, and swiftly back out of the room. The moment marked the climax of the Yom Kippur service in the Holy Temple.

Now… all we Smell are spices at havdalah … the etrog on Sukkot…and what else? It pales in comparison. If you don’t believe me, ask Proust.

Noses & nostrils are important.

In the Beginning, (pun intended) we have God breathing life into Adam’s nostrils

The very first mention of God smelling the aroma of a burnt offering is found in Genesis 8:21. Noah offered a burnt offering after leaving the ark.. It was a “pleasing” aroma (reiach nichoach) to God.

But on 16 different occasions in the book of Leviticus, an “aroma” is mentioned as something pleasing to the Lord. Specifically, the aroma of a sacrifice is important to God.


How do we explain “reiach nichoach”?
A blogger Rabbi : Again and again what are we to make a ריח ניחח, a pleasing scent, to Adonai? The Rabbi hears those words and thinks of wood smoke, fine incense, the mouthwatering aroma of good barbecue. Once upon a time we understood our korbanot as our way of putting something fragrant into the air for our invisible Deity. Now, she concludes that she likes to think of the reiach nichoach created by our choices. Do our actions create a reiach nichoach, a sweet scent, for Adonai? She asks.

Hmmm. I don’t know about that. She has turned it into a metaphor. Beware of metaphors. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. But we will get to that later.

Even humans nostrils are implicated…we have in Job 27:3: All the while my breath is in me, and the spirit of God is in my nostrils.

One last beautiful teaching about Ketoret and smell.(Based on the Lubavitcher Rebbe)

God encounters sacrifices as smells; Korbanot/sacrifices are not the finished product. Korbanot are promises of something more to come. The offerer’s work is far from over.

A korban is a signal to God that “this is just the beginning.” The pleasant smell of the korban implies/hints at something even greater to come.

The Torah concludes its discussion of the mishkan ( in Tetzaveh) with the ketoret. It is the high point of the whole endeavor. The mishkan is meant to be only the tiniest piece of something that promises to be much greater even when one is no longer physically in its presence.


Enough about smell.
Let’s talk now of the category of senses that include hearing and seeing.

Note how we alert each other, call attention to what we want to convey:
Tirei …”Look” “You see…” “Look here!”
We bring people to the realm of logic. Be logical, be sensible. Hey, pay attention.


Shema…in English we say “Listen” “Listen to this” “Listen to me”

But when God calls out “Hear oh Israel…” he is summoning us to his hidden place. Speaking and hearing are God’s preferred means of communication.
We also know to “listen to your heart.”

Clearly there are situations that require listening or hearing and others that do better with seeing or looking. God does not want to be seen. When he appears camouflaged in a pillar of smoke or fog, he is obfuscating. He is hiding. He likes noise: thunder, cracks of lightening, blasts of horns.


There is an amazing British therapist from the 1930’s, Joanna Fields (aka Marion Milner) who has studied perception, her own, to the nth degree.

She came to understand through self-observation that she learns “not from reason but from my senses.” And she identifies different ways of perceiving:

  • narrow focus with the center of awareness in my head. The way of reason!
  • wide focus, knowing with my whole body. The way to happiness. 

Who hasn’t had the experience of attending a concert and losing track of the music? Our attention gone to pervasive chattering in the mind. How hard it is to be here now and listen and hear.

She learned that she could move her center of awareness at will. She called it a gesture of mind. A gesture of the mind that puts us out of ourselves—maybe into the soles of our feet, or maybe out in the hall, maybe right up close to the orchestra or even into the action…anywhere but in our narrow focus of intellect.

Think of the Hebrews sensing that they could not hear God and certainly what God had to say. They said first to Moses: You tell us what God says. They delegate twice. Later they say: we’ll do and we’ll listen. They put themselves—their bodies, not their minds– into the action, the story line, the laws, the words, the thunder…and then, and only then, could they hear. (obey vs hear issue)

As an aside, it is not clear when they stopped listening or hearing properly. We have a possible hint in that the first 2 commandments are in the first person I; all the rest are in the third person, as if Moses is now speaking.

Thunder, lightening, earthquakes, fire are all natural occurrences. But immaterial horn blasts are true miracles.

At Sinai there were waxing horn blasts. But according to Nachmanides, there were no horns. God produced that effect. Rashi says the sound was soft as first and grew louder and louder so as to habituate the listener.

We will now hear the blasts. They will get loud and louder. Your eyes are useless, so close them. Move your center of awareness away from your ears. Choose another point…like the soles of your feet, your solar plexus, maybe your fingertips, or maybe the top of the room.

Just stay with your choice.

Yossi blows the shofar repeatedly.


At Sinai, “just for a moment we became aware of our own awareness.” says Lawrence Kushner in The River of Light. There is some dying or shattering that happens between the two efforts to give us Tablets, he adds.

Either Moses shatters them or the people die and God takes back the Tablets and the people live again.

What did God basically say: I am. This is God’s self awareness. Perhaps he means to say also: “When you learn who I am, you will learn who you are. “

and from Adin Steinsaltz I gleaned…
The importance of this event is not so much what was said but rather that God appeared before man and told him what to do. Contact rather than contract.

There is the giving of the Torah and… there is the receiving of the Torah.

The first happens in a single historic moment.

The second is an enduring process…readiness to absorb and absorb and absorb again.

Art Green follows up on that with some pearls…. (Seek My Face, Speak My Name)
yod hey vuv hey –all vowels–is but a breath, no form, an essence, an abstraction. /37

“Revelation reveals the possibility of revelation” says Green and I add: …again and again. /113

“I shall be that I shall be” yod hey vuv hey is interpreted by the rabbis as: I shall be with you again as I was with you then.

Isaiah says: “You are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and I am God.”

This implies that if they are not there to receive, then I am not God.

There is the contract. That is the “decisive moment.”

“Faith in Sinai also commits us to a life of study. Judaism is a process of ongoing commentary. To be a Jew is to be a student. To be a self-affirming Jew is to love and study Torah. …the rabbis considered study equal to all the other mitzvot combined as one.” That was a quote and here’s another one. The “unchanging text serves as counterpoint to our constant evolution and development” Our fallible text needs commentary. Are we ready to be students? /137 /138

We should be sure our awareness can move at will and capture all the nuances of this event. What is the point? To give out rules? To get someone to listen and accept a contract? To form a nation? To scare the wits out of us? To promote Moses as a prophet? To assert one’s God-ness? Let us make sure that in our changes of focus, we do not become “narrow” but keep the possibilities “wide”–to use not just our intellect but all our senses—our whole body.


And what do the mystics say via Perle Besserman i(Kabbalah & Jewish Mysticism)

According to Ibn Gabriol (11th cent Spanish mystic) who named it, Kabbalah, the received tradition is the “teaching from mouth to ear.” “Kabbalah cannot be taught; it must be experienced.” Think about the times in biblical text or midrash that we hear of words spoken into ears. (Exo.24:3)

Lurianic Kabbalah (Safed 1543-1620) used “every sense in bringing about unwavering meditative concentration required by the practitioner of the yichud method. Even incense, snuff, fragrant herbs and spices to heighten the meditator’s sensory awareness.”

Formation of the Israelite nation happens at Sinai. Powerful experience and a powerful memory. The mystics fought to keep that experience from becoming a metaphor. They insisted that it was a continuing revelation… available to all. The mystics became marginalized. The mystic’s goal was to become at one with Torah as well as living according to its codes, etc.

Moses de Leon, the author of the Zohar said: God’s words resounding at Sinai, “were heard as 70 sounds that were simultaneously revealed as 70 lights. This experience of synesthesia was had by all….present at Sinai” … and even into the future.

Before we end, I should say something of the oh so famous phrase “naseh venishma (we will do and we will hear)” The hidden world, says Rabbi Nilton Bonder (Yiddische Kop), is made accessible first through experience and only then as perception. He presents 4 Realms in a lesson from the Alter Rebbe. In the Apparent Realm of What is Hidden, we are in the world of intuition. Our ancestors must have known in their bones how to absorb this momentous event in their national, spiritual and psychological history.


On a different note, I want to quote another Jewish sage directly from the pages of the NYTimes… 3/21/2017

David Brooks writes about the loss of an American mythology that was built on the Exodus story.

The Exodus story has many virtues as an organizing national myth. It welcomes in each new group and gives it a template for how it fits into the common move from oppression to dignity. The book of Exodus is full of social justice — care for the vulnerable, the equality of all souls. It emphasizes that the moral and material journeys are intertwined and that for a nation to succeed materially, there has to be an invisible moral constitution and a fervent effort toward character education. (All that comes after the 10 commandments and before the Tablets)

People who see their lives defined by Exodus move, innovate and organize their lives around a common eschatological destiny.


When I lived on a kibbutz…we did not worry about all this. Shavuot was simply the best Jewish holiday. Each school grade was assigned a branch of the Kibbutz industries & agriculture…they brought corresponding first fruits to the community elders standing on a podium right beside the swimming pool. Calves from the dairy; fish from the fish ponds, apples from the groves, and new mothers brought their babies. There were costumes and dances and lots of singing. The whole Sinai experience was pushed to a distant back burner and probably smoldered there. All the focus was on the agricultural part of the holiday.

They may have missed something important…but we here in the cities and towns also miss something important—that other aspect of the holiday that has disappeared into blintzes and cheese cake.

When we come to shul tomorrow to hear the 10 Commandments, how will we choose to approximate the Sinai experience?