The divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world.
That’s the dictionary’s definition, but what does revelation actually look like? How does one know they are experiencing a supernatural disclosure?
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, we get a glimpse of the Israelites’ experience of their encounter with the Divine at Mount Sinai:
All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the shofar and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” Moses answered the people, “Be not afraid; for God has come only in order to test you, and in order that the fear of Him may be ever with you, so that you do not go astray.” So the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick cloud where God was (Exodus 20:15-18).
While it is important to note that revelation was not just directed through one single prophet but rather the entire nation, according to the Exodus narrative revelation was too overwhelming for the people to handle. The mountain was so full of fire and smoke with tremendous quaking that it was too much for the newly freed slaves to experience. In fact, they had to ask Moses to serve as their intermediary because they feared for their lives.
So that’s revelation?! An experience so gripping and panic inducing that we are thrust to the floor in fear, never to stray because of impending doom and punishment? Is this not an experience that actually distances us from God rather than bringing us closer?
If that’s revelation and the God I am to worship, I don’t want any part of it! Were I among the Israelites on their journey through the wilderness, I would be complaining every step of the way! Yes, we left slavery and the servitude of Pharaoh – now only to be tested by this powerful, all-mighty God who is so quick to punish?
There is another way. In fact, we read it in the selection of this week’s Haftorah from the book of I Kings. After Elijah the prophet flees for his life to the same mountain, we get a very different take of revelation:
“Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the Lord.” And lo, the Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12).
In this narrative, revelation is not to be found in the overpowering forces of nature – wind, shattering mountains, earthquakes, or fire. Revelation is not found in a communal experience, either.
Rather, the Divine call is personal, encountered in the quiet of a still small voice. It is the voice of our higher consciousness and intuition speaking to us ever so softly. It manifests as an inviting call into connection and relationship.
That’s the revelation I want to experience. That’s the God I can worship and connect to.
The question remains: Are we listening? Are we able to quiet the chatter of our minds and the noise of the outside world to hear it? And to what lengths are we willing to go to encounter God’s presence?
Despite their complaints and shortcomings, the Israelites had the courage to leave their habitual lives as slaves and were willing to endure the uncertainty and travails of the wilderness.
Elijah flees through the desert for 40 days to reach the mountain and cave where he encounters that Voice. And along the way, he cries out to God to end his life: “Enough!” he cried. “Now, O Lord, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (I Kings 19:4). Out of his desperation and his longing and the quiet of nature, he is able to experience God’s whisper.
Rabbinic understanding of revelation is that it continues to be broadcast from Sinai: “A great voice that did not end” (Deuteronomy 5:19).
Revelation did NOT end! Not then, nor now!
Rabbi Aryeh ben David writes:
Is God answering me? I would put it: God is always talking to me, but only occasionally do I listen (Making Prayer Real, Comins p. 77).
God is constantly calling out to us. Our task is to prepare our minds, bodies, and souls to listen to the calling.
What is revelation?
To me, it is a divine invitation that illuminates the path before us. Hopefully, we have the courage and strength to walk fearlessly down that road, one step at a time.