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

many aspects of Torah wisdom. We suggest reading the full poem “Akiba” by Muriel Rukeyser, with our footnotes. 

Since the poem is about the spiritual journeys of our lives –- and since the journey of fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, or from Easter to Pentecost, are the archetypal spiritual journeys -- Rukeyser’s  great poem is an extraordinary Teaching to be absorbed and learned from on either of the approaching festivals.

Meanwhile, there are four chapters of Freedom Journeys, the new book I wrote with Rabbi Phyllis Berman,  that are about the approach to Mount Sinai and the experience of the voice of revelation from Sinai itself.  

Three of the chapters are about the biblical story: one about the family-transforming encounter between Moses and his father-in-law that was necessary before Sinaicould happen;  one about what it means to live amidst the mountains of the Wilderness; and one about the experience of Sinai itself.  The fourth is about the Rabbis’ reinterpretation of the Sinai event. 

Any one of them could be used as a passage for study on thefestival.  We invite you to get the book at 20% discount in time for Shavuot or Pentecost, by clicking here:

For now, we are sending the chapter about the Wilderness itself. It stems from the actual experience that Phyllis and I undertook as pilgrims a dozen years ago: climbing on foot and camel-back what may or may not be the actual Mount Sinai. 

Chapter XVI: The Wordless Torah of the Wordless Mountains

Are the people ready for Sinai? 

Seven weeks they have been walking from the Narrows through the
open wilderness that is the Land of No One

In Hebrew, "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.

In our own generation, on many nights in "Midbar
sinai," the Wilderness of Sinai, hundreds of pilgrims from many religions
and from all around the world spend all night climbing the mountain that either
is or isn't the mountain where the People Israel once upon a time assembled,

In their  generation long ago, they too struggled over
crags and crevices to hear the Teaching that was beyond words.  

Yes, beyond words. Indeed, one teaching about the Teaching says
no word at all was spoken -- only an aleph, the first letter of the Ten Words
that have come down to us.

The aleph is a letter with no sound of its own. Only the silent
sound made by an open throat. From just the truth that the Universe wants to
speak with us, opens its throat to speak with ua,  comes all the rest, for
us to figure out: Don't kill ---   Don't breathe without remembering
that each breath is the Name of the One Breath --  Don't take a useful
part of the Whole and carve it out from all the flow, make it an idol, rigidify
it  and bow down to it --  Don't steal from another's share of the
great Abundance, for then the Abundance will wither  --  

All that wisdom, encoded in just the open throat of the World
that wants to speak.

And when the many diverse pilgrims look out today at dawn just
as those walkers in the Wilderness looked out so long ago at dawn,  across
millennia they join to sing and sob in joy, they look to the nearby mountains
and see -- the Tablets!

The mountains themselves, in their geological formations,
looking like the conventional images of the Tablets that we see in our art and
on many synagogues.  Running across them are horizontal outcroppings,
grooves, furrows,   horizontal bands of rough outjutting rock
separated from each other by horizontal bands of smoothness.   Layer
on layer, the outcomes of convulsive wordless history. 

Outcroppings that can ALMOST be read. Beyond words.

The Tablets of the earth itself and the Utterances of the earth


Now the people are ready.



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