Shavuot, the holiday marking divine revelation -- that is, the giving of the Torah on Sinai -- begins this coming Tuesday night. There's a midrash, a Jewish legend, about Revelation that teaches:
At Sinai, when the Holy One gave the Torah to Israel, God manifested marvels upon marvels with God's voice. How so? When the Holy One spoke, the voice reverberated throughout the world. At first, Israel heard the voice coming to them from the south, so they ran to the south to meet the voice there. It shifted to the north, so they ran to the north. Then it shifted to the east, so they ran to the east; but then it shifted to the west, so they ran west. Next, the voice shifted to heaven. But when they raised their eyes toward heaven, the voice seemed to rise out of the earth. Hence Israel asked one another, "But wisdom, where shall it be found? And what is the place of understanding? [Job 28:12]" (Exodus Rabbah 5:9)
It's a funny, kind of pathetic image, isn't it? The Israelites scuttle around, running here and there and everywhere. The Israelites' desperation is evident, and it's pretty clear that the anxiety that they're experiencing is serious business.
And it feels familiar, as well. So many of us these days are in constant motion, hurtling down the street with smartphone in hand, running from work to our social lives or home lives and errands and chores and then going to bed and doing the same thing all over again. We're in perpetual motion, running from north to east to south and back again, chasing a truth of some sort and not finding it -- and, perhaps, wondering why we're not hearing God's voice more often than we do.
"Wisdom, where shall it be found?" Well, how about right here?
"What is the place of understanding?" How about this place?
Would the voice have changed directions if the Israelites had determined from the outset that they would stay and hear what was to be heard in the south? The midrash tells us that God's voice reverberates throughout the world, after all -- so why are they running in circles? I wonder if, perhaps, rather than chasing after God's voice, they might actually be running from it.
After all, revelation is terrifying.
What God asks of us is not always easy -- in fact, it's usually not easy.
It's worth distinguishing for a moment between what we want for ourselves and what God -- which I think of as both the transcendent deity of a spiritual practice that pushes us to grow, and the immanent, still small voice of our intuition -- might demand of us. Wanting is endless, and can be manufactured to aim at just about anything. In America today, a billion-dollar industry exists to make people want more, to want what they don't really want, let alone need. To keep them running in circles, North to South to East and back again, looking for something new every time the promised object doesn't deliver. Because it never does.
What God needs of you -- what you, in the deep recesses of your being, need of yourself -- is almost never what you want. Because needs can be messy and inconvenient. And demand that you leave a job that doesn't really suit you, change things dramatically in your relationship, set boundaries in ways that might ruffle feathers, speak bravely about something unpopular, change your habits or where you live. You'll be more in alignment with your life, but there may be grief and fear to get through, first. And frankly, it's hard.
Once the Israelites stop running around and actually hear what it is that God has to say, they'll be on the hook. Their lives will change drastically after they receive Torah. They'll have to face all of the ways in which responsibility -- covenant -- can be uncomfortable, can push us, challenge us, force us to be accountable to the divine, to others, and to the best version of ourselves. How many distractions, pettinesses and indulging of our less admirable qualities do we have to give up to do that?
I think the Israelites were running around because they didn't want to hear. Like so many of us who fill our time staring at screens, multitasking, making ourselves busy, being frenetic and obsessing over things that don't matter, the Israelites are running around numbing themselves out and then pretending that they don't know what would help.
"Wisdom, where shall it be found?" Right here, in this present moment.
Even if it might seem to be more instantly gratifying to try to drown out the voice of God that dwells within each of us, that tells us deep and uncomfortable truths, we pay a price for our willful ignorance. It's true that being awake sometimes means that we have to feel painful emotions and face difficult decisions, but it also means that we get to experience joy and love and connection on a whole other level.
It may not be easy or convenient, but revelation is a life-or-death proposition. Ultimately, allowing ourselves to hear God's voice -- aligning our will with God's will -- may be the only thing that can ultimately save us. We need only to be brave enough to stop and hear the voice that is calling to us, from every direction.