The pagan cultures of ancient times and today's science-based atheism have one thing in common. They hold that all there is, is bounded by the physical, essentially material world of nature.
The ancients spoke of the gods of the sun, the moon, the sea, the storm, the famine, the flood, the wind and the rain. Today scientists speak of the strong and weak nuclear force, cosmic antigravity, quantum fluctuations and the six mathematical constants that make the universe the size and shape it is.
Where the ancients saw random, capricious fate, science sees the opposite: the ordered regularity of nature charted by cosmology, physics, chemistry and biology. But for neither is there a problem of revelation. What we know is, in the broadest sense, what we see. Reality is bounded by what we, given the current state of technology, can detect and measure.
Judaism, however, is about meaning, and meaning is something we hear, not see. It is about what makes us human, and why we behave the way we do, and why we so often destroy what is most precious. These are things that cannot be reduced to atoms, particles and forces. Judaism speaks, above all, of a monumental series of encounters between human beings and a reality beyond the quantifiable and predictable, a reality that is to the universe what the soul is to the body. The question of questions is therefore: how can we relate to something so utterly beyond us?
The biblical answer, astonishing in its beauty and simplicity, is that the meeting between us and God is like the meeting between two persons, myself and another. I can see your body but I cannot feel your pain. How then can I enter your world? Through words. You speak, I listen. I ask, you answer. We communicate.
Judaism is about meaning and meaning is something we hear, not see
Language is the narrow bridge across the abyss between soul and human soul. So it is between us and the Soul of the universe. Revelation takes place through speech. That is what happened at Sinai. Infinity spoke and the world trembled. In the silence of the desert the Israelites heard the voice of God.
Why, if God spoke at the beginning of time, did He need to speak in the midst of time? The answer lies in what the Bible sees as the most fateful event in the history of the world. God, having created a being in His image, gave it freedom. But the being He created was physical, and thus subject to desires that conflict with those of others. So began the long, bitter, brutal story of humankind.
God created order and gave humans freedom. Humans then proceeded to create chaos. That is the story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel and humanity before the Flood - a world of freedom without order. After the Flood, humans created empires that had social stability, but they did so by depriving others of their liberty. That is the biblical story from the Tower of Babel to Egypt of the pharaohs. The result was order without freedom. How then can order and freedom co-exist? The whole of Judaism is an answer to that question, and all of Jewish history is a commentary to it.
The biblical answer is law: not physical, scientific law, the law of cause and effect that applies to mindless particles on a micro- or macro-scale, but moral, ethical and spiritual law: the law that speaks to human beings in full acknowledgment of their freedom. That is why God spoke at Sinai. Creating a mindless universe, implies the Torah, is easy. In Genesis, it takes a mere 34 verses. Creating a social order in which free human beings act justly and compassionately, is difficult. That is why the story of Sinai takes 58 chapters.
At the beginning of time God spoke the laws that frame the natural universe. At Sinai He spoke the laws that shape the moral universe, inviting the Israelites to construct a society that would serve as a pilot project for humanity as a whole.
The humans God addressed in the desert were liberated slaves. They knew what it was to be treated as less-than-fully-human. That was now behind them. God spoke - and it was essential that He did so not to an elite, but to everyone, men, women and children.
He told them that though He was the God of all humanity ("the whole earth is mine," Exodus 19: 5), He was willing to risk His own profile in history by linking His name with theirs. He was offering them a covenant that if followed would - in priestly terminology - turn them into "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19: 6).
For it is law, voluntarily accepted, conscientiously practised, studied, meditated on, internalised, taught by parents to children across the generations, spoken of "when you sit in your house and when you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise up," a law transcending all earthly principalities and powers, that alone reconciles freedom and order. It is only by voluntary self-restraint, born of learned habits of law-abidingness, that we preserve our own freedom while at the same time extending it to others. That is what God spoke at Sinai.