Sinai in the Cranny of the Gym

When my twins told me about their upcoming Chumash ceremony, I at first did not believe them. “Ima, on Rosh Hodesh Kislev we have a Mesibat Chumash – everyone is going to receive their own copy of the Torah,” they told me excitedly. “Are you sure?” I asked them, knitting my brows in suspicion. The first of Kislev was only two days away. The school usually sent out calendar notifications weeks in advance. Even if it was just a Zoom link—which I assumed it would be—I expected that the teachers would have sent it by now. Prior to the revelation at Mount Sinai, God gave the Israelites three days’ notice, instructing Moses to “Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the Lord will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai” (Exodus 19:11). Why hadn’t we heard anything about this event?

I thought back to my son’s Chumash ceremony two years earlier, held in the spacious high-ceilinged sanctuary of a local synagogue because the school auditorium—also known as the lobby—was not large enough to contain all the parents, grandparents, and siblings who came to celebrate the occasion. The room was decorated with branches and flowers, as is customary on Shavuot as well, because of the tradition that Mount Sinai was carpeted with flowers and greenery during the revelation. The children sang and danced and paraded before us in their “festive dress” – white shirts and dark pants and skirts, and a paper crown with a pop-up of the Ten Commandments over their foreheads. One by one they were called up by the school rabbi, who shook their hands and handed them a certificate; then their teacher hugged each child and presented a Chumash. Afterwards the parents lingered to mingle and take more photos and only very slowly did the crowd disperse.

I knew that with the twins it would be different. The pandemic is far from over – the Chumash ceremony is generally held at the end of first grade, just when the kids begin learning Genesis, but now it’s already November of second grade. They finished Breishit and started Noah two weeks ago — just last night I clarified for Liav that no, Yephet was not a girl, but a boy like Shem and Ham. I wasn’t expecting to be invited—even at Sinai there were boundaries: “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death’” (19:12). It was dangerous to draw too close to Sinai when God descended in a cloud to give the Torah, just as it was dangerous to congregate too closely in Corona times. But I would have thought that at the very least we’d receive a Zoom link so we could watch the ceremony from afar.

I almost forgot about the event until I receive a Whatsapp message from the teacher instructing us to dress the kids in “festive dress” the next day. Instead of the school uniform, a solid-colored shirt with the school logo, the girls went to school in their white shirts and black skirts—the same ones they had worn when they organized their own Siddur ceremony at home during the lockdown. But otherwise it felt like a regular day, at least for their parents. When I came to pick them up, they were waiting at the school gate clutching their new Chumashim to their chests, eager to show me the nameplates they had inscribed for themselves: “May I always learn new things in Torah”; “I hope I always find joy in learning from my Chumash.”

“How was the ceremony?” I asked them. “What happened?” They told me that each second grade class had been called to the gym at a different time to receive their Chumash from their teacher. The school rabbi played his guitar from the other side of the basketball court and sang a few songs, his mask lowered to his chin so he could project his voice; the students clapped along from the bleachers. There was a white tablecloth covering the folding table where the Chumashim were stacked, but other than that, the room was unadorned—Tagel told me that the floor mats were still out and she wished they had let her turn some cartwheels. The kids chanted a few verses from the opening of the Torah, and then filed back to their classroom to eat their lunches—the unexciting sandwiches and cucumber slices their parents packed every morning—at their desks.

We were still outside the school. I asked the girls to pose by the fence so I could take their pictures holding up their new Chumashim. They shrugged. “Ima, it wasn’t such a big deal,” Liav insisted. I was dismayed that the event did not seem more significant in their eyes. “Let’s have ice cream after lunch today,” I offered, hoping to make the day feel more special. But as they took off their shoes and washed their hands, I realized that something other than dairy dessert was in order to mark the giving of the Torah. There was something I needed to tell them.

“You know guys,” I told them, addressing my words to both Bnei Yisrael and Beit Yaakov. “Everyone thinks that Maamad Har Sinai happened at just one point in time. That Moshe went up to Mount Sinai, received the Torah, gave it to the people, and that was it.” Matan, who was sitting at the table with us, cut me off, convinced he knew where I was going with this. “Not true,” he said. “Moshe went up the mountain two times because he broke the first set.” That was true, I conceded, but I had something else in mind.

I told the kids about what happens after God gives Moses the Ten Commandments and after the golden calf episode, when Moses is all alone with God. Moses, having pleaded successfully with God to forgive the people, audaciously demands to see God’s glory. God responds, “You cannot see my face, because man cannot see Me and live” (33:20). However, God concedes that Moses may see His back. God instructs Moses, “Station yourself on the rock and as My Presence passes by, I will put you in the cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back, but My face must not be seen” (33:21-23). I explained to the kids that this was a sort of private revelation, for Moses alone.

I wanted the kids to understand that revelation was not just about the grand theophany at Sinai, when God came down in a cloud of fire with thunder and lightning, accompanied by shofar blasts as the mountain trembled violently. There was also a more subdued revelation that took place without the special effects, when Moses stood alone in the cranny of the rock and saw God from behind. I told them that their Chumash ceremony was sort of like that revelation in the cranny of the rock, since it took place not on the pulpit of a synagogue sanctuary decorated with greenery and crowded with family and friends, but in the bleachers of the otherwise empty school gym.

The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot (3:6) that God is present wherever people sit and study Torah. Even if only one person is engaged in the solitary study of Torah, the divine presence rests upon that individual. I told the girls that every time they opened their Chumash to learn from it, the Shechina would be right there with them. It was a lesson I never would have thought to impart had my girls not received their Chumashim in the cranny of the school gym, their faces obscured by Corona masks.

That night, scrolling through my camera roll, I noticed that the photo I had taken of my girls holding their Chumashim on our way home from school was suffused with a radiant light. I noticed, too, that I had forgotten to ask the girls to take off their masks for the picture, and so I could not see their faces. I thought of Moses coming down the mountain with his skin all aglow – the people were blinded by his radiance and shrank from coming near him, so Moses put a veil over his face. Is a veil like a Corona mask? Is the light of the divine presence like the light in Jerusalem on a crisp autumn afternoon? Hard to know. But one thing is for certain. Though it was a revelation devoid of fireworks and fanfare—no thunder, no lightning, no mountain aflame—my girls in the gym at school had received the Torah.

5 thoughts on “Sinai in the Cranny of the Gym

  1. Tamar says:

    Perfection. Not a silver lining but a golden light. Thank you for this lesson in being present. And listening and looking. And connecting the dots.


  2. Sharna B Shachar says:

    How beautiful! So inspiring. What a gift to be able to find something meaningful even in the most mundane and find beauty even in these unexpected times. Thank you!


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