"Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come only in order to test you, so that the awe of God shall be upon your faces, and you will not sin’” Exodus 20:17
The initial response of the Israelites to the events of Sinai is terror: confronted by thunder and lightning, smoke and the blaring of horns, they understandably back away from the mountain. Moses seeks to reassure them by explaining what is going on, but speaks not of revelation and law, but of divine test and awe. His words seem to do the trick, but what does his explanation actually mean?
The simple reading is that the supernatural phenomena of Sinai are a demonstration of divine power. Israelite obedience can be secured only through evidence of God’s awesomeness. Such a view thinks little of human nature, suggesting that we act only out of awe of God’s might, that human behaviour is motivated primarily by fear of what God might do to us. The rabbis, however, understand Moses’ words differently.
They read “the awe of God shall be upon your faces” as referring not to fear but to bushah, shame, a characteristic that reveals itself on our faces. To the rabbis, this was the real gift of Sinai. “If someone is without shame” they stated, “you can know that his ancestors did not stand at Mount Sinai” (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 20a).
Sinai was a revelation not of fear but of knowledge — to know whether we are behaving well and to feel ashamed when we are not. Self-reflection becomes the determinant of our behaviour, not concern about divine punishment. As the rabbis put it, “Shame leads to fear of sin”. If we are embarrassed to be behaving in a particular way, be it in front of God or other people, then this is the divine gift of shame kicking in. When it does, we should probably listen.