In our sacred texts, God is called by many names: Tzur (Rock), Shomer (Guardian), Rechem (Womb), Melech (King), Adonai (Lord), Magen (Shield) — all our limited approximations of God’s infinite being. In the Torah, we find a moment of intimate exchange between God and Moses in which Moses asks God how he should identify God to the people. In this one-on-one conversation next to the burning bush, God tells Moses that he (Moses) will be the leader to take the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses first asks: Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? God promises Moses that God will be with him in this process of redemption. Moses then asks God: When I come to the Israelites and say that You sent me, what should I tell them Your name is? God answers: “Tell them ‘Ehyeh asher ehyeh‘sent you.” “Tell them ‘I shall be that which I shall be’ sent you.”
This name is how God self-identifies: not as person, not as place, but as process. God is not something static that can be encountered once and thereby understood forever. Rather, God is dynamic, growing and evolving alongside us. And we, human beings made b’tzelem Elohim, in the divine image, are, likewise, not created static and sure, but rather are in our own process of becoming. God is process, God is in process, and we and God are in process together, birthing the reality in which we live.
The upcoming holiday of Shavuot is the time in which the Divine gives — and we receive — Torah anew each year. In doing so, we recommit to and renew our relationship with the Divine. As we prepare for this holiday of revelation, we might ask: What does it mean to be to be in covenantal relationship with this God? Inherently, our covenant must be dynamic. If God is that which God shall be, to whom or to what are we committing ourselves? Are we committing to being in ongoing process? To not pinning down God — or ourselves — to one thing?
Revelation itself is a process in which all that we thought we knew is challenged. In this synesthesia moment, our senses are reversed. We see thunder and hear images, the mountain smokes — the world speaks to us in new, surprising, and previously unimaginable ways. In this moment of covenant, what exactly is revealed?
It is taught in the Talmud that at the moment of revelation we received all the teachings that will ever be (Megillah 19b). According to the Mishnah, we received the entirety of the Torah, but nothing more (Pirkei Avot 1:1). Others postulate that we heard even less. According to R. Yehoshua ben Levi, we were able to hear only the first two of the Ten Commandments (Shir HaShirim Rabbah [Vilna] 1:2). And according to the 19th-century commentator Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshicz, in fact all we heard in the moment of revelation was a single letter.
In his work Zera Kodesh, Horowitz writes: “It is possible that at Sinai we heard nothing from the mouth of God other than the letter aleph of the first utterance Anochi Adonai Eloheikhem, I am YHWH your God.” In this view, what we heard was just the aleph — itself a silent letter until a vowel of articulation is placed beneath it. As Daniel Matt writes in God & the Big Bang, “The Aleph of revelation finds expression moment by moment.” The aleph is given. What it becomes is up to us. In this understanding, then, Shavuot becomes a holiday in which we celebrate the possibility inherent in revelation and commit ourselves to be in an ongoing process to bring forth those articulations most needed in our world today. When we approach texts with our intellect, imagination, and intuition, we activate the creativity residing within each one of us and open up new realms of interpretation. In doing so, we step into our role as the commentators of today.
Shavuot not only commemorates the experience of our ancestors receiving Torah at Mount Sinai, it invites us to inhabit this sacred process of reception ourselves. In Judaism, revelation is an ongoing process in which our learning, commentary, and insights are essential. When we come up to read from the Torah, we bless, “…asher natan lanu Torat emet, v’chayei olam nata b’tocheinu, baruch atah HaShem, noten ha Torah.” Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, known by the name of his greatest work, Sefat Emet, gives a beautiful teaching on this verse by drawing meaning from the specificities of the grammar in this blessing: “…who gave (natan – in the past tense) the Torah of truth and implanted within us eternal life, blessed are You who gives (noten – in the present tense) the Torah” (Kedoshim 1871, s.v. ba-Midrash). In the words of Rabbi Arthur Green, “Torah given to the ancients can only become the Torah of truth when each reader takes that eternal life implanted within us and uses it to reread Torah in a way that speaks to our own lives. God not only resides behind the text as guarantor of its infinite elasticity but also dwells within us, in the innermost chambers of our endless creativity.” When we activate our creativity, we tap into the vast possibilities of what we, Torah, and God can become.
Rabbi Adina Allen is a spiritual leader, writer, and educator who believes in the power of creativity to revitalize our lives and transform Jewish tradition. As co-founder & creative director of Jewish Studio Project (JSP), she has pioneered a methodology for integrating Jewish learning, spiritual reflection, and creative expression that she has brought to thousands of Jewish educators, professionals, and lay leaders across the country. Adina is a recipient of the Covenant Foundation’s 2018 Pomegranate Prize for rising educators. She was ordained at the pluralistic Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2014, where she was a Wexner Graduate Fellow.