Rabbi Karen Citrin

One of the things that I love about Tulsa is the excellent selection of art and culture that one can find in this midsize city. I have enjoyed the Tulsa Ballet and the Philbrook Art Museum. And just a couple weeks ago on a rainy mother’s day, I finally made it to the Gilcrease Museum for my first time.

I have often enjoyed art museums, especially the sensation of looking at the world through another’s perspective. I was recently fascinated to discover that there are multiple artistic depictions of the quintessential Shavuot image of Moses receiving the tablets of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.

Of course biblically, the holiday of Shavuot, which begins tomorrow night, is strictly an agricultural holiday, a celebration of the first summer fruits and the barley harvest. But, as colleague Rabbi Stephen Fuchs recently wrote, Shavuot is one of the great examples of Reform Jewish thinking, some 2,000 years before there was even anything called Reform Judaism. (“How Shavuot is a Perfect Example of Reform Jewish Thinking.” Rabbi Stephen Fuchs. ReformJudaism.org)

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when crowds of people were no longer gathering to celebrate in Jerusalem, the rabbis came up with a new meaning for the holiday. They realized the times had changed and they reformed the holiday. They figured out that if you count seven weeks, seven Shavuot, after Pesach, it would be about the same amount of time that it took our ancestors to travel to Mount Sinai after they left Egypt. So today, Shavuot is also a joyous celebration of when our people received Torah at Mount Sinai.

And it is this second layer of meaning, which seems to have captured the artists’ eyes throughout the ages. There are many artistic renditions, midrash if you will, of Moses receiving or handing over the tablets of the law including portraits by Rembrandt, Rosselli, Chagall, and Michelangelo, to name a few. I am especially drawn to Rembrandt’s 1659 rendition of Moses Breaking the Tablets. Rembrandt lived in the Jewish quarter in Amsterdam and was influenced by Jewish images around him. In this painting, Moses holds the tablets above his head, as if about to cast them at the viewer.

Most of us are familiar with the story from Exodus. While Moses was atop Mount Sinai, the people feared his absence and along with Aaron made a golden calf in place of worshipping the One God. As Moses came down from the mountain, he saw the calf and the dancing and became enraged. And he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 32)

How did Rembrandt interpret this story? You can go home and Google the image, or I will try to describe it to you here. There are several striking aspects about his painting. (Inspired by Rabbi Shelly Marder’s Sermon, On Rabbinic Leadership, at Congregation Beth Am on May 29, 2009).  “First, Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments are bathed in golden light; Moses’ face shines with a shimmering glow. And yet, despite the brightness of his face, Moses looks worried. Rembrandt painted anxiety into his eyes and brow. In this scene, we see Moses as he descends from Mount Sinai for the second time, carrying two stone tablets to replace the first ones. We might have expected Moses to look a little triumphant, or, at least, relieved. After all, God had given him a second chance.”

So why the downcast, worried look? Perhaps Rembrandt wanted us to see a Moses who is still pondering the golden calf – a Moses who fears that idolatry might be awaiting him again, back at the Israelite camp. He had good reason to worry.

Most striking of all is that Moses is lifting those heavy slabs of stone high above his head. His hands and arms are positioned like someone lifting the Torah in synagogue. This is a clue that Rembrandt knew a thing or two about Jewish worship.

What is important here for all of us tonight, is that through his painting, Rembrandt expresses three relevant ideas about religious expression. One, he shows us the spiritual radiance of a person’s face when delving into the wisdom of Torah. Two, he shows us a face of worry and anxiety: a person who is concerned about whether we are reaching high enough or living up to our highest ideals. And three, he shows us the ritual of raising up the Torah, symbolizing the potential the Torah has to raise a person up with the power of history, community, and ongoing revelation.

Let’s take a moment to unpack these three lessons a little more. One, Moses’ inner radiance revealing the light of Torah. Psalm 19 is the Bible’s most profound meditation on the richness and light of Torah and what it does for us. Shavuot is a good time to take in its vivid images:

God’s Torah is perfect, restoring the soul.
God’s tenants are sure, making wise the simple.
God’s precepts are right, rejoicing the heart.
God’s teachings are pure, enlightening the eyes.
More to be desired than gold, sweeter than honey from the comb. (Psalm 19:8-11)  

With so much warmth and light, why then, the worried look and expression? “Rembrandt understood the enormity of the task that a religious leader faces: the task of inspiring and nurturing community one person at a time; the task of shaping a community in which each person counts and contributes. None of that happens without a little worry and anxiety.”

The recent Pew Research Center study on religious affiliation certainly speaks to this concern, with the rising trend of people who consider themselves religious “nones.” Not nuns, but nones, referring to the more and more people who say their religion is “nothing in particular.” (“America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” Pew Research Center. May 12, 2015)

But the study also leaves a sense of hope and encouragement to increase our efforts especially toward the Gen X and millennial generations, who seek more personal meaning and different kinds of doorways into religious affiliation.

The reality is this: the lifting up of Torah, making it visible and accessible to everyone – this is the first step. Then it’s up to each one of us to receive it. It’s up to each one of us to take it, and turn it, to learn it, and over time, to find personal meaning and to integrate Torah into our own lives. As the psalmist said, “God’s teachings are pure, making the eyes light up.” Shining light on ancient parchment – making it come alive for each person. This is the message of Shavuot.

So what did Moses see from the mountain top? Of course we will not really know. But we can imagine, as artists have through the generations. I imagine that the height of the mountain gave Moses a broader perspective. He was able to see his people from a distance, worn from years of slavery, struggling in their belief and faith. I imagine that he saw their brokenness. Even with the light of God shining brightly through him, Moses was worried. He shattered the tablets. And then God gave him and the people another chance. 

On this Shavuot: What do you see from the mountain top? What is your view? Are the tablets broken? Have we lived up to placing God before all else and pursuing a life of holiness? Have we lived up to honoring our parents, keeping the Sabbath, and not coveting our neighbor’s possessions? Are we following the Ten Commandments and the full depth of Torah? What is broken and what can you help repair?

In the midst of brokenness, the rabbis always believed in picking up the pieces. They challenged us together, to restore wholeness by our actions – the deeds of heart and mind and body. They challenged us to do more, to keep on turning the text for new meaning, and to raise ourselves even higher. To continually seek the brightness of Torah and to let its light shine forth.

You never know what you will discover in an art museum, or in Torah. Both provide the opportunity to see an image or an idea through another’s perspective. And then to create your own.

Shabbat Shalom. And Chag Shavuot Sameach.