Why was the Torah given in the desert of Sinai? Whoever does not make himself ownerless and abandoned like a desert, cannot acquire the wisdom of the Torah. – Numbers Raba 1:7
A desert is a place of desolation and emptiness. Very little moves or makes a sound. If we want to receive the word of God, we need to enter into our inner desert. We need to find the place of stillness and emptiness inside us where the living God dwells.
We are told that when the prophet Elijah went to seek God on Mount Sinai, he sat down in a cave and began to mediate. As he sat in deep contemplation, “a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still small voice.” – Kings I 19:11-12
The knowledge of God is not like any other knowledge. God is not found through a multitude of words, or by bombastic proclamations of faith, or in great expressions of emotion. To find God we need to seek in the depth of inner silence, in the vast stillness that is within.
The Baal Shem taught that there are two kinds of davening – two types of prayer. Sometimes we fling our limbs in all directions as we pray, like a person who is drowning and calling out for help. And sometime we pray without moving a limb, in total stillness, where even the slightest sound or movement can break our inner connection. 
Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught that this is the meaning of the phrase in Song of Songs 5:2, “I am asleep, but my heart is awake.” This verse refers to a spiritual state where our senses are asleep and we have no body consciousness, while our “heart” soars into the vast expanses of the heavens; awake within the infinite Ocean of God.
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: “The Torah was given to Moshe on a parchment of white fire and written in black fire and signed in fire and bound in fire, and in the process of writing the quill wiped against his hair and from there Moses got the radiance on his face. – Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus, Torah portion Yitro, Ch. 19
We find a beautiful explanation of this midrash in the words of the Indian saint, Sri Ramana Maharshi:
“There is a [movie] screen. On that screen first a figure appears. Before that figure on the same screen other pictures appear and the first figure goes on watching the other pictures. If you are the screen and know yourself to be the screen, is it necessary not to see the first figure and the subsequent pictures? When you don’t know the screen, you think the figure and pictures to be real. But when you know the screen, and realise it is the only reality on which as substratum the shadows of the figure and pictures have been cast, you know these to be mere shadows. You may see the shadows, knowing them to be such and knowing yourself to be the screen, which is the basis for them all.”
“Brahman [God] or the Self is like the screen and the world is like the pictures on it. You can see the picture only so long as there is a screen.”
“The Torah was given to Moshe on a parchment of white fire and written in black fire.” According to Sri Ramana, then, the white fire is God, the screen of Pure Consciousness; the substratum of all that exists. In order to receive the black fire which is the wisdom of the Torah, we need to discover the white fire within us, the tablet upon which the black fire is engraved.
How do we accomplish this goal?
Sri Ramana Maharshi once again provides us with the answer. In one of his teachings, Sri Ramana compares the mind of the average person to a room full of junk:
“These people are like a man who fills all the rooms of his house chockfull of unnecessary junk and then complains that there is no room for keeping his body in it.
“In the same way, they fill the mind with all sorts of impressions and then say there is no room for the Self [God] in it. If all the false ideas and impressions are swept away and thrown out what remains is a feeling of plenty and that is the Self itself.”
The reason we cannot find God is because our mind is full of endless thoughts and desires. If we can learn to empty the mind, then God’s Living Presence will immediately appear.
There are forty-nine days between the holyday of Passover and the holyday of Shavuot – seven times seven weeks. This period is called the Omer. The Omer is a time of preparation. During the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot, we strive to still the mind, to stop the whirlwind of constant thought and desires, so that we can perceive the presence of God within.
In the teaching of the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, the experience of yichud – Divine communion and inner revelation – is followed by a period of ibbur or gestation. This period is a time for integrating our spiritual revelation. It is an opportunity for solitude and reflection where we solidify the place of stillness inside us. Then we are ready to be “born” into the world of activity and experience without losing our link with God.
Sri Ramakrishna compared this inner work to the process of making butter.
“To get butter from milk, you must let it set into curd in a secluded spot: if it is too much disturbed, milk won’t turn into curd. Next, you must put aside all other duties, sit in a quiet spot, and churn the curd. Only then do you get butter.
“Further, by meditating on God in solitude the mind acquires knowledge, dispassion, and devotion. But the very same mind goes downward if it dwells in the world…
“The world is water and the mind milk. If you pour milk into water they become one; you cannot find the pure milk any more. But turn the milk into curd and churn it into butter. Then, when that butter is placed in water, it will float. So, practise spiritual disciplines in solitude and obtain the butter of knowledge and love. Even if you keep that butter in the water of the world the two will not mix. The butter will float.”
First, we need to build a place of calm and tranquility inside us. Then we can enter into the world, while holding on to the inner stillness, interacting with others from our spiritual sanctuary.
This is the manner in which the Patriarchs and Matriarchs lived in the world. The Talmud Tractate Yoma 28B tells us that the Forefathers and Mothers all kept the mitzvot (commandments] before the Torah was even given. They were so attuned with their Divine essence that they naturally fulfilled God’s Will without instruction or commandments. This is the kind of relationship we are meant to have with the Torah. The Torah was intended to be a natural extension of the revelation.
“Vekol ha’am roim et hakolot” – And all the people saw the thundering (Ex 20:14). The Baal Shem Tov asks: how is it possible to see thundering? Thundering is something that is heard and not seen. He then goes on to answer his own question: The revelation at Sinai, he explains, transcended all the normal five physical senses. The Children of Israel experienced the events on the mountain through a whole other spiritual sense, through the higher consciousness of the Self.
In the Talmud, whenever the rabbis want to make a point, they preface their words with the phrase, Tah Shma – “come and hear.” This phrase is an invitation for us to come and listen to their teaching and to understand its logic. In the Book of the Zohar, however, when the rabbis want to convey a new teaching, they start with the phrase Tah Chazi – “come and see.” When we are dealing with inner wisdom, it is not enough for us to simply understand the words; the teaching has to become a tangible reality. The words need to come alive. And the only way that this can happen is through spiritual experience, through “seeing” with our inner eye.
In the blessing that proceeds the shema (the central prayer of Judaism), we recite the words “vehair eiynainu beToratecha” – enlighten our eyes with your Torah. These words are a heartfelt prayer asking God to illuminate our consciousness, to fill our eyes with His Divine sight. The Idras section of the Zohar describes the nature of this Divine sight, using a phrase taken from Psalm 121:4. “The Guardian of Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.” God’s all-seeing Eye, the Zohar tells us, is constantly looking out over the world. He observes everything that is happening on all of the myriad planes of the manifest universe. The Divine gaze pierces through all the veils of material reality to see into the hearts of men and angels.
This is the nature of the sight of Pure Being, the sight of Boundless Consciousness; the vision of the white fire that underlies all that exists. It is the vision of the vast expanses of the desert; of an emptiness which is full of God.
This Shavuot, be at synagogue, be at a festive meal with family and friends, and be at an all-night tikkun or study session; but also take some time to be in the desert – to be in the place of silence and stillness where the Eternal God dwells.
- Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Amud Hatefilah # 70 and 139↵
- Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, Kedushat Levi, Torah portion Lech lecha↵
- Devaraja Mudliar, Day by day with Bhagavan, p. 168 and 238↵
- Suri Nagama, letters from Sri Ramanashram, p. 241-2↵
- ‘M’, The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, as translated by Swami Nikhilananda, p. 82↵
- Baal Shem Tov al haTorah, Torah portion Yitro # 55↵