The "I" Who Spoke at Sinai-- and Nag Hamadi

Shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, which comes fifty days after the second day of Passover -- seven weeks of seven days, plus one day -- begins this year (2016) on the evening of Saturday, June 11.

What does it celebrate, what does it teach?

My own sense of its meaning has been deeply transformed by an ancient teaching from the Nag Hammadi library (which has been called a “Gnostic” collection). The story of how I got there is after this essay, where the color changes to maroon..

But first: In Biblical tradition, Shavuot celebrated the spring wheat harvest, as hundreds of thousands of Israelites brought sheaves of newly sprouted wheat and two loaves of leavened bread to the Temple in Jerusalem.

But as the Jewish community became more and more widely dispersed, and then when the Temple was destroyed and the Jewish community shattered by the Roman Empire, the ancient Rabbis realized they could no longer celebrate Shavuot this way. Indeed the food-offering connection with any piece of earth grew weaker.

To replace food and land, the Rabbis sought to make words of prayer, words of Torah, words of reinterpretive midrash into new ways of connecting with God. They sought to create a festival when all Israel in every generation could stand at Sinai to receive the words of Torah and speak new words of Torah, just as all Israel in every generation could use Passover to become again a band of runaway slaves, newborn from Egypt’s Tight and Narrow Space (Mitzrayyim).

So the Rabbis transformed the Torah’s agro-meaning of Shavuot into the festival of Revelation.

Who spoke at Sinai? Anokhi – a heightened form of the usual Hebrew word for “I,”  Ani.  When the Universe calls out to us, the “I” Who calls is Anokhi. Some say it was not only the first word at Sinai, but perhaps embodies in Itself the entire Revelation.

For if the Universe calls out “I” to us, everything else follows:

  • “Don’t waste My Name by forgetting that each breath you take is the ‘pronouncing’ of My Name,”
  • “Set aside time for you and for the Earth to rest and reflect,”
  • “Don’t murder a human or a species,”
  • “Don’t wallow in greed so as to covet,” and all the rest.

I, YHWH, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, Breath of Life and Hurricane of Change, Who brought you forth from the Tight and Narrow Place, the house of slavery….”

While the Rabbis were working out this transformation of Shavuot, an unknown writer in the Semitic language Coptic was giving a different valence to that great Anokhi.  The text, called “The Thunder: Perfect Mind,” was stored away in the Nag Hammadi collection of religious texts written during the first two centuries of the Common Era.  That library -- -- a collection of mostly Christian texts that the early Church refused to name as part of the sacred canon -- was unearthed by moderns only recently

 But “The Thunder” is not Christian, and its whole text is built around Anokhi Whose Divine Voice was/ is Feminine.

Its title, “The Thunder,” did not describe any specific part of  its content –- but the whole text feels like The Thunder that spoke at Sinai. 

Here are excerpts

MLK, Isaiah, and the Prophetic Voice within Us

This Saturday morning just past (Jan. 18, 2014), I was scheduled to lead Torah study in Mishkan Shalom, one of the three Philadelphia-neighborhood congregations that Phyllis and I belong to.  Actually, I don’t “lead” it so much as I “weave” it, choosing the specific passage we read and then encouraging the participants to explore their own thoughts and feelings about it. As a weaver might, I may connect some threads and suggest a related thought. The Word of Torah that emerges is not mine, but the community’s.

So the first question is, what passage will  we read?

We were to read the Torah portion (Exodus chapters 19 & 20) about the Voice at Mount Sinai, the Voice that comes as the whole mountain quakes and erupts in thunder and fire and smoke. The entire people is about to hear the Voice call out with Ten thundering Utterances, initiating the community into a collective prophetic mode.

 Jewish tradition matches the Torah passage of each week with reading a Prophetic passage that echoes it or challenges it.  This past Shabbat, that passage was about the moment when Isaiah, sitting in the Temple, feels the building shake and fill with smoke. He hears the Voice call him, initiating him to become what we call a Prophet. (Isaiah 6: 1-13).

 Since this past weekend has been and this morning still is devoted to Martin Luther King, I decided to bring in as well his own initiation into becoming a Prophet in our lives. I brought his first speech in Montgomery, Alabama, as a young pastor – a speech four days after Rosa Parks had been arrested for refusing to move from the seat she had taken in the “whites-only” section of a Montgomery bus. A speech to

Israel, Hillel, & Idolatry

Recent controversies within Hillel International, the “home” for many Jewish college students of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, have made public in a sharper way a profound spiritual issue confronting American Jews and their “official” organizations.

The spiritual issue: When does strong support from many American Jews for the State of Israel and its Jewish citizens as an emergency refuge, as a creative culture, as a defender of Jewish interests, as a member of the Jewish family, become idolatry of the State?

First, the background of the Hillel controversy; then, an examination of what idolatry is:

The controversy surfaced most publicly when Swarthmore College Hillel announced they would refuse to abide by rules handed down by “Hillel International” that would limit what Jewish organizations and speakers were allowed to speak there. Hillel International then threatened to disaffiliate Swarthmore Hillel.

The debate within Hillel began in 2011 when its official managers adopted a policy that prohibited having speakers or partnering with organizations that “deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish and democratic state; delegitimize, demonize or apply double standards to Israel; support boycott, divestment and sanctions [BDS] efforts against Israel; or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

Applying these rules, Harvard Hillel refused to allow a former Speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Avraham Burg, to speak at Hillel because co-sponsors of his speech included a group of pro-BDS students in the Palestinian Solidarity Committee along with J Street U and two Hillel-affiliated groups, Students for Israel and Progressive Jewish Alliance. -

Responding to this exclusion of Burg, first Harvard students and then a growing band of Jewish students across the country created “Open Hillel,” arguing for a policy of welcoming broad debate and inclusion of Jews of varied views and action about Israel as Hillel welcomes Jews of varied views and action about prayer, gender, sexuality, economic policy, political party, theology, and every other issue.

More recently, Hillel International announced it had become formal partners with AIPAC, an American lobbying group that almost always strongly supports Israeli-government policies when it meets with and encourages campaign contributions to Members of Congress.

Open Hillel raised strong concerns about the effect of Hillel’s privileging AIPAC in this way, as against other Jewish organizations that strongly differ with Israeli government policy. Open Hillel urged that instead, AIPAC continue to be treated as one voice among many in the voices Hillel encourages to speak in its venues..

Then Swarthmore Hillel proclaimed itself an “Open Hillel.”

Swarthmore Hillel’s refusal to knuckle under to Hillel International’s restrictions has put “Open Hillel” and the whole debate over what is “not allowable” to say in American Jewish life on the public agenda— not only in the Forward & the JTA but also on the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

For me, all this raises some basic questions of the Spirit.

What is idolatry? Worshipping any being – person, object, institution, community – as if it were Divine. “Carving it out” and “bowing down to it” as the Ten Commandments describe and forbid. (Exod. 20: 4). Not only “carving out” a physical object, a statue, but carving out from the One Great Flow of Life a piece that must not be criticized, not be questioned. A piece not only to be loved and honored for its usefulness and beauty, not only to be seen as a temporary aspect in service to that Unity  — but treated as an Ultimate, Unchangeable good.

The Hillel International prohibitions make the State of Israel, and indeed only one version of it, into an idol.

 I understand the urge to do this. The Rabbis told a tale in which they searched and searched for the yetzer hara (the evil impulse) toward idolatry, hoping to destroy it. They finally found it — in the Holy of Holies!  We most easily make an idol of something that has a lot of sacredness in it.

What is the alternative to idolatry of Israel? Idolatry of any thing?

The alternative is celebration of the God Whose Name is “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, I Will Be Who I Will Be.”  I am Becoming. Never stuck.

That was /is/ will be the God of the Burning Bush, Who called Moses to resist Pharaoh and calls us to resist all pharaohs. (Exod. 4)

Speaking Beyond Words: Wilderness, Sinai, Shavuot, Pentecost

We are approaching Shavuot, the Jewish Festival of Weeks, which begins at sundown on Tuesday, June 7.  Pentecost, the Christian holy day that is rooted in Shavuot, comes on Sunday, June 12.

In the biblical understanding, Shavuot was the festival for celebrating the completion of the spring wheat harvest, seven weeks (a week of weeks) plus one day – 50 days -- after Passover. 

In rabbinic Judaism, Shavuot was understood as the anniversary of the revelation of the Torah on Mount Sinai. 

In honor of that tradition, we have posted a remarkable brief video by Lawrence Bush, editor of Jewish Currents,  on our Home Page.

In the same tradition, we will make available copies of Freedom Journeys, the new book about the Exodus and Wilderness by Rabbi Phyllis Berman and me.  Click  to purchase it here, with a 20% discount, only until June 12.   

In Christian tradition, Shavuot was the time when a gathering of Jewish followers of Jesus were infused by the Ruach HaKodesh – the Holy Spirit or Breath --  and were enabled to speak and understand all the 70 languages of human civilization. 

If we understand the YHWH  Name of God as the Interbreathing of all life, then we understand how this Holy Breathing Spirit could make all languages understandable. 

For Christians this became the festival of "Pentecost,"  a word that comes from the Greek for  “50.”  This year it falls on Sunday, June 12,  fifty days after Easter.

Besides the Shavuos video, The Shalom Center suggests a number of resources for the celebration of  Shavuot and/or of Pentecost:

In Jewish tradition, the first night of Shavuot has become a time for learning together


Created by Lawrence Bush, editor of Jewish Currents, Shavuos links the festival that celebrates God's revelation of  the Torah at Sinai  with universal human rights and the oneness of Creation. A serious, whimsical, contemplative, eloquent presentation of basic truths that can bring us all together.

Tikkun Leil Shavu’ot from the Point of View of the Earth

Developed by Rain Zohav
[Zohav is a rabbinical student in the ALEPH smikha program. This plan for Shavuot was developed for the course in Eco-Judaism taught hy Rabbi Arthur Waskow in 2009.]

Idea: Use the attached document, “Ten Commandments From the Earth” as a starting point for discussing what people can do to protect and defend the environment.

The Wordless Torah of the Wordless Mountains

Rabbi Arthur Waskow *

Seven weeks of walking from the Narrows into the open space that is the Land of No One – and then we enter the heart of the heart of the wilderness -- Sinai itself, and the Torah.

"Wilderness" is "midbar." It could be understood as "midaber," -- "wording, speaking," -- or "m'devar/ m'dibbur," "away from word, without a word, beyond words."

Or both:

A speaking beyond words.

Several years ago, Phyllis (Rabbi Phyllis Berman, my life-partner) and I spent a few days in "Midbar sinai," and with hundreds of pilgrims from many religions and from all around the world spent all night climbing the mountain that either is or isn't the mountain where we all assembled to get the Teaching that was beyond words.

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