This past Tuesday, Lebron James, star-forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, became the all-time greatest scorer in the NBA, after scoring his 38,388th point.
Perhaps what was even more amazing is the picture of the crowd when he took the shot that gave him the record. Lebron James is in the air, taking a little jump shot, and virtually the ENTIRE crowd is holding up their cellphones to capture the moment. It’s unbelievable. You don’t even see faces. You see hundreds of people behind him, holding their phones up like this.
I could just imagine if we would have received the Torah at Sinai in 2023. Imagine the thunder, the lightning, the heavy cloud of glory, G-d’s voice ringing out from the top of the mountain – and the entirety of the Jewish People holding their phones up to capture the moment.
The truth is that is exactly what they did. They didn’t have cellphones, of course, but like the fans watching the Lebron, they weren’t really watching the game. There is a famous question that’s asked on the song we say on Seder night, Dayeinu. We say, “Had you only brought us to Har Sinai and not given us the Torah, Dayeinu! It would have been enough” And everyone asks, really? If we would have just stood at the foot of the mountain and never received the ten commandments, would that really have been enough?!
The answer is yes. The most important part of the experience at Sinai was not the content of the Torah, “Do not murder. Do not commit adultery.” No, that’s not it. The most important part was the experience of G-d communicating to our ancestors, to the Jewish People, to us. Day, dayeinu. Had G-d just communicated to us, without any particular message, it would have definitely been enough.
But the Jewish People did not understand that. The Jewish People wanted something concrete. Like the fans at the Lakers game, they wanted a memento, they wanted something tangible to leave the mountain with. But that wasn’t what was happening. Our Sages teach us that G-d communicated to them all of the commandments at once, not sequentially, but all ten in one voice, something that we are not equipped to hear. The Jewish People couldn’t handle it. They immediately approached Moshe. “Moshe, speak up, we can’t hear.” We want something concrete. We want something tangible. We want to walk away from this experience with a message.
G-d acquiesced. Moshe took over and taught them the ten commandments. The Jewish People got their picture. But it was a terrible failure. A failure that Moshe later criticized the Jewish People about right before he died.
They were so focused on themselves, on capturing the moment, that they missed out on the incredible experience of the moment itself. When you’re holding hands ones with a loved one, you don’t talk, it kills the beauty and the magic of the silence.
Years ago, I spent the last days of Pesach in B’nei Brak with my grandparents. I was davening in a small minyan for those of us who kept two days of Yom Tov. One of the people at this minyan was a great Torah scholar by the name of Rav Shmuel Berenbaum, he was the Rosh Yeshiva of the Mirrer Yeshiva in New York. After davening, they invited all those who participated in the minyan to a private meal with Rav Berenbaum. I attended, of course. I was sitting quite close to him and he started speaking, he started giving a lecture – in Yiddish. I don’t know about you, but I speak almost no Yiddish. I could have leaned over and said, “Bichvod Harav, with respect, everyone here speaks English, can you speak in English, or Hebrew?”
Instead I sat through a 45 minute lecture in a language I did not understand. Let me tell you, I have sat through many lectures in my life, and I’m embarrassed to say I have forgotten many of them. But not this one! I just sat there, not really understanding anything he said, and just watched his eyes. They were blue and they were on fire. It felt like sparks were shooting out of his eyes. I just took that in. For 45 minutes. It’s now twenty years later and I could still see those eyes boring through me.
Did I lose out by not capturing that moment? By not understanding what he was saying? No. I gained. I gained tremendously by experiencing the moment.
Sometimes we’re in a conversation with someone and they’re not being so clear. We try to understand but we can’t. Maybe it’s some dementia setting in, or maybe they just speak in a roundabout fashion and it’s impossible to follow. Sometimes we’re speaking to someone who has a viewpoint that is radically different than ours, politically or otherwise, and they’re just not interested in hearing our view. Or maybe we’re listening to a lecture and we can’t hear the speaker, or it’s just not a great speech. We are not going to walk away from any of these situations with anything concrete. But not everything has to be concrete, not everything has to be captured by my cellphone. There is an experience of the moment that is so much greater. The experience of giving someone kavod, honor, by just listening even when we cannot hear. Because sometimes the words don’t matter. Sometimes there’s far more to gain without the words. “Had you brought us to Har Sinai and not given us the Torah, dayeinu.”
There is a Medrash that says that when G-d spoke at Sinai, all the birds stopped chirping, all the dogs stopped barking, all the waves stopped crashing, it was absolutely silent. I always understood this to mean that the world was desperate to hear the word of G-d and so it silenced itself to hear Him. Rav Shimshon Pincus shares a very different understanding. He explains that it’s the other way around. First the birds stopped chirping and the dogs stopped barking and the waves stopped crashing and there was absolute silence. And once there was silence, we were able to hear the word of G-d.
We are physical and material beings. We are concrete and are most comfortable with the tangible. But once in a while an experience comes our way and we’re faced with a challenge; do I pull my phone out or do I sit back and experience the moment? Do I say, “What? I can’t hear you. I don’t understand. I disagree?” or do I just listen even if there’s nothing to hear?
The most G-dly, most spiritual, and most elevating moments in life are not captured, they are experienced.