The High Places

January 1, 2010

The reward is not always at the top

Why was the Torah given on a mountain? Of all places, why was a mountain the site for revelation, that intimate experience with the divine?

Some people think that climbing mountains is basically about work and reward, the work being the climb up and the reward being the incredible view you earn from the top. I like a view as much as the next person, but in truth, I’ve completed some of my most memorable climbs in conditions when, the whole way up and the whole way down, I could see only five or ten feet in front of me. I remember one hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, from Greenleaf Hut, up Mount Lafayette, across Garfield Ridge to Galehead Hut. My wife, Gail, and I hiked seven hours in mist and fog. Never a view was to be had, yet the experience of that ascent up Lafayette, the ridge hike, the changes in the rock as we ascended and descended, the camaraderie, the constantly shifting clouds, are with me still.

In many ways, that experience resembles my continuing spiritual search. In my spiritual fantasies, my learning culminates in deep understanding, where the answers to my questions are set out clearly before me. Yet my experience is otherwise. Often my study feels murky and pedestrian as I plod through a text or struggle as a rabbi and a chaplain to do the right thing with a student or in my community. But even when the view is not clear, the process and the journey almost always feel worthwhile.

Why on a Mountain?

To return to my initial question, why was the Torah given on a mountain? The answer isn’t as obvious as we might think. If the point is that we experience God most intimately in impressive places, in locations of natural grandeur, the site of revelation didn’t necessarily have to be a mountain. After all, as any of us who have hiked in the desert can attest, the vast expanse of deserts has a singular power. The very word for desert in Hebrew, midbar, comes from the root that means “to speak.” It is only in the vast open spaces, away from past history, liberated from restraints, that we have the freedom to find our voice, the freedom to hear and understand. For that matter, oceans are just as fitting a place for revelation. There is no experience quite like sitting on the rocks overlooking the ocean, watching its ebb and flow, its constant movement and expanse. In fact, the Red Sea was the historic sight of exodus and redemption in the Bible, where God’s presence and power were really revealed. So revelation didn’t necessarily have to be on a mountain.

When I looked into the rabbinic literature for an answer to this question, I found that the rabbis actually are concerned with a different question. They ask why the Torah is given on the particular mountain of Mount Sinai. Now, hikers know that each mountain has its own character. The rabbis in the third century take this insight to another level. In one story, the rabbis say that Mount Sinai was chosen specifically because it was lower than other mountains, stressing the importance of humility and modesty. Although this is a nice lesson, it still doesn’t address the initial question of why revelation was on a mountain in the first place.

I think I know the real reason, but I don’t like it much. Simply put, in our culture, as in many cultures, God was commonly thought of as “up there,” in “the high places.” In the book of Job, it’s written, “God who makes peace in his high places” (Job 25:2). Whether we think of the early Canaanites ascending the high places to worship the deity Baal, the dwelling place of Zeus on Mount Olympus, monasteries high in Tibet, or the new-age mecca of Mount Shasta in the state of California, mountains were a good place to find God. Early on, it seemed that the psalmist tried to make sure that we didn’t confuse mountains with God when he or she wrote in Psalm 121, “I lift my eyes to the mountains from where comes my help.” The poet goes on to emphasize and clarify: “My help comes from God, who made these mountains.” If we want to understand God, we look to the mountain but must see beyond the mountain.

Jeffrey A. Summit is the rabbi and the Neubauer executive director of Hillel at Tufts University, where he also teaches ethnomusicology and Judaic Studies. He has hiked in the White Mountains for more than 45 years. His annotated recording Abayudaya: Music from the Jewish People of Uganda (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) was nominated for a Grammy Award. The full text of this story may be found in the Winter/Spring 2010 issue of Appalachia.

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