On Thursday, we had a visit to the school from an artist who had donated a number of his paintings to our school last year. Usher Hammer, along with his wife Rose, came to see how his artwork, which focuses heavily on letters of the Alef Bet along with precise geometric shapes, was doing in its new home. We walked through the school and into some of the classrooms where his paintings hang, and he would stop and take pictures of his paintings, which he had painted as a way to help him through a very difficult period in his life. I asked him to share with some of the students what had inspired him to paint a number of his pieces, and he did, often with a voice cracking with emotion. One of the things he said to the students was that sometimes, “you really only understand what you painted once you finish it, and its true meaning and purpose becomes clear“.
One of his paintings hangs in the grade 7 classroom, and he was looking at it while the students were in the middle of learning with their teacher about the meaning of the holiday of Shavuot, on which we celebrate the receiving of the Torah, the great revelation of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai more than 3,000 years ago. I asked the students to look up from their source sheets and study the painting – what does it have to do with Shavuot?
“I see Har Sinai!” said one student.
“I see the rays of light coming from the mountain…” said another.
“But do you see the mountain upside down, over the Jews, hanging over the Jews?” I asked?
One of the more powerful teachings about the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai is found in the precise words used to describe the Jewish people standing at the foot of Har Sinai – the Torah uses an odd phrase to describe that moment, that ‘they stood under the mountain, ‘betachtit ha’har’ (Shmot 19:17). By way of explanation, the Talmud (Shabbos 88a) explains that:
R’ Avdimi bar Chama bar Chasa said, “This teaches us that the Holy One, blessed is He, covered them with the mountain as though it were an upturned vat and He said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good. But if not your burial will be right here!’
In other words, the midrash on which this Talmudic teaching is based bluntly says that Hashem lifted up Har Sinai over B’nei Yisrael’s heads, turned it over, and threatened to drop it on them and crush them all should they refuse to accept the Torah. Accept the Torah, and all is good. Turn it down, and the story of the Jewish people ends in that remote part of the Sinai desert. No future King Davids. No future Einsteins. No future Seinfelds. Over.
The paradox of this situation is that the Jewish people, B’nei Yisrael had already declared the famous words ‘na’aseh ve’nishma,’ and had voluntarily agreed to accept the Torah, even before knowing what was in it. So how can these two completely opposite teachings be reconciled?
I believe Hashem was teaching us something about the way the world often works, and what we need to do to not only survive, but thrive as Jews in this world. I want you to know that you may always have a mountain over your head, God is saying. Living as a Jew may be exceptionally difficult at many points in your national future, and you need to prepare yourself for it. And history bears this out – consider our situation, time and again, over the last two thousand years; that mountain has always been over our heads, ready to crush us at a moments notice.
And what was our response to God? We don’t care, we said. Na’aseh ve’nishma, we will do and we will listen. We love You, and we want Your Torah. And we will live our lives fully as Jews, regardless of what is hanging over our heads, precisely because we are Jews. Precisely because we accepted your Torah. And history bears this out as well – look how much we have brought to this world, the creativity and scholarship and humour, the values and ideas and outlook. Look at how we have not only endured, but how we have managed to thrive, despite all odds. That’s our response back to God. Give it your best shot we say to Him – we’re not going anywhere.
And so to return to Usher Hammer’s quote, that “you really only understand what you painted once you finish it, and its true meaning and purpose becomes clear“, it’s quite clear that we as a nation are a painting that is still not finished. However, that part of our painting that has the upside down mountain, it’s true meaning and purpose is clear. Even in the hard times, with that omnipresent mountain hovering over us, we can find beauty and love and meaning, and fully live our lives with purpose and value, Torah and God.
And that is one of the key teachings of the holiday of Shavuot.