By RABBI JOSEPH H. PROUSER
On Shavuot, we celebrate the anniversary of the Revelation at Mount Sinai with the dramatic reading of the Ten Commandments from the Torah. This Biblical passage recalls humanity’s most explicit and transformative experience of the Divine.
It is telling, therefore, that the Shavuot Reading is preceded by “Akdamut” (“To Begin…”) – a lengthy 11th century liturgical poem offering a disclaimer. Akdamut insists that – despite the explicitly revelatory content to follow – we mere mortals lack the capacity fully to grasp or accurate to describe the nature of God:
“Even if all the skies were parchment, and all the reeds in the world were pens, and all the oceans ink, and all who dwell on Earth expert scribes, God’s grandeur could still not adequately be conveyed.”
The self-aware theological humility expressed in Akdamut is revisited by English playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), who reflects upon the limitations of the written word… even “If all the pens that ever poets held had fed the feelings of their masters’ thoughts…”
So, too, Indian peasant mystic Tukaram (1608-1649): “No words, there are no words to show Thee as Thou art. These songs of mine are chaff….”
On Shavuot, we celebrate Torah by studying God’s Word… at considerable length. “Akdamut” – Acknowledging how little we could ever know – is a good place to begin.
(Rabbi Joseph H. Prouser is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey and the former National Chaplain of the National Jewish Committee on Scouting.)