For Shavuot: The Sinai Gathering

The following article appeared in Reb Zalman’s book, Paradigm Shift, (Jason Aronson Inc., 1993, pp. 3-11).   I have taken the liberty to make some minor changes for enhanced accessibility.  Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG editor

Prayers of Peace

by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

This report to the P’nai Or community appeared in the B’nai Or Newsletter, June 1984 issue. The content speaks for only one part of me.  All I can say is that there are other levels that are beyond what I describe below.  What happened on the deeper and the higher levels is not accessible to verbal description.  And yet, as you follow in your imagination, I ask that you think of it as though you were there.  Better still, think of it as tied to when in fact you were there, when you stood at Sinai. 

While the impact on me is beyond my fully capturing, I want to mention that we weren’t able to follow up then with the kind of political and social action that this meeting would have required to bring the vision to fruition.  Our hands were tied through an agreement with the Egyptian authorities that we could not publicize this meeting in the media for fear of repercussions from religious and political hard-liners.

Many months of constant work on the part of many individuals, in particular, Ms. Maurine Kushner, (click here, to see an article about Ms. Kushner’s works), had made this meeting possible.

To this day I am warmed by the memories.

Between March 5 and 9, 1984, I celebrated Shavuot as never before. It was to change me forever.  Sinai has become something real for me now, as I recall desert, mountain, echo, shofar, and the divine imperative that issues in a small, still voice and in thunder.  When you hear of this, it will be for you as if you were there as well.  I was your re-present-ative there; palpably present too were all souls current, past, and future.

Who participated?  People attracted by the call of the voice of God today urging us peace. They were:


Japanese — Shinto priests, and Buddhists of all varieties, headed by a venerable, 80-year-old abbot, wise and childlike.  Camera- and gadget-happy all, robed in vestments, impressive in their cohesion, despite obvious religious differences, I had never before seen among other religionists such true tolerance for others’ faith and practice forms.

A Native American shaman and healer — So utterly serene, sane, absolutely fitting into the desert.

Moslems — Men and women, professionals, village elders, exemplars of adaba / well-educated, a gallantry of soul (horizontal), while also doing the prescribed prayers five times a day, (vertical).  They were from Egypt, the United States, and Israel.

Sufis — Some close to the Moslem tradition, others more universalist, doing Zikr in the oasis and on the mountain, seeing holy hopes perhaps on the verge of realization.

Christians — Byzantine Orthodox, Copts, Melkites, Baptists, Angli­cans, Quakers, Roman Catholics, and other Catholics, and a rainbow of Protestants, praying and speaking in many tongues and doing this together, some from Israel, some from Egypt, and others from the USA and Europe.

Jews — both from America and Europe, from Israel and the Dia­spora, secular and religious, New Age, traditional and feminist with an age range spanning 11 to 80. 


Some of us met in Cairo, others in Israel. I had the good fortune to be among those who got to Sinai via Cairo.

Egyptian hospitality was genuine and appropriate from the airport on.

What an airport! There were sharp contrasts, ranging from veiled women at Arabic/English computer terminals to people of all shades and features, from Chinese and Japanese, to all sorts of Africans with headdresses from turbans and tarbushes.

And what traffic! It takes a long time to get in and out of Cairo. I kept thinking of the miracle of getting us out of Egypt in the night of Pesach on roads less well-built and with packs carried by humans and beasts, on vehicles drawn by oxen and asses. We were, in our day, enjoying all this in air-conditioned comfort.

And what sounds! Cairo is the honking-est place I ever visited. Yet for all the tumult and bustle, people were close to polite in traffic and accepting of the way things were.

The Nile Hilton was where they put us up.  Rabbi Marshall Meyer from Buenos Aires was my roommate there. He serves on the new Argentinian president’s commission dealing with the thousands of victims of the past junta.  He shared with me tales of the horrors of that time. God give him koach, for he is the one permeable Jew in South America who has to present the best values of our tradition to a world that needs to be told of them. Oy! I felt a strong connection with him. He created a conservative rabbinical seminary serving Jews in Latin America, he translated the siddur and the machzor into contemporary Spanish, and with all this he had a huge, feeling heart and a soaring soul.


The impact of the pyramids! Their massive immensity dwarfed me to insignificance. They are worn by time and the elements. Yet the Great Pyramid still has some of the ancient finish on it and points to a splendor beyond that of any skyscraper,  magnificent dwellings for the dead.  The Sphinx was small in comparison and the mutilated once-noble face that may have belonged to Sekhmet, cat goddess, does not so much deal with riddles and mysteries as with wear, (my own riddles and questions were to have to wait for Sinai).  And other magnificent dwellings for the dead:  While on the way to Cairo from the airport we had passed the graves of the necropolis, a whole city of mosque-shaped graves and mausolea.  Ancient Pharaonic Egypt crypts and Moslem crypts:  I could really identify with Jacob, who said to Joseph, “Don’t bury me in Egypt.” The Makhpela and the Safed cemetery reveal a very different attitude when compared with the pyramids and the necropolis.


The next morning, we started through the desert to Suez. We drove through a tunnel underneath the canal and then found ourselves on the other side heading north along the coast, toward the Sinai.  We passed through the Firaan Oasis at night, the biblical Paran, a lush jungle of green in the midst of the reddish-brown stone and sand.


Against the fragility of our modern technology, the forty years in the desert was making a different sense.  From time to time we passed small villages.  At last, we came to the tent compound that was to be our camp for the next few days.

Everything was different in the desert, from the spade stuck in one’s belt to cover one’s excrement, to the preciousness of each drop of water, the near-total absence of wood and brush, the camel-dung campfires to cook coffee over, the cold at night and voices calling for predawn prayer.


The next morning, I got up before dawn and went up the nearest hill to davven. The sun rose behind the mountain to the east of me. There was the blueness of the sky, the dry crispness of the air, the reddish-brown craggy terrain, and the intense red on the top of the mountain to the west of me, reflecting the sun that set it ablaze.

“The mountain was burning.”  Phrases from Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy rushed into my mind, Elijah’s trek to the Sinai now having an immediate reality. The desert’s  holiness is diametrically opposite to that of the ocean. In this stark earth- and fire-element setting, I see the God-word deeply carved in craggy, lapidary script and terse DOs and DONTs. Against such immutable and massive realities, the story of my personal life seems a tiny graffito on the mountain rock.

As I prayed, I faced north to Jerusalem, and the siddur words spoke with an eloquence life in the city cannot evoke.


At breakfast, the Cairo and the Israel groups first met. As we saw some unexpected faces of friends and acquaintances in the other group, we let out cries of surprise.  Sabbah al kheyrSabbah an nur, Ahalan wa sahalan, we greeted one another. Ohaio Gozaimas, Boker Tov, regards and news were exchanged, spanning from the Pacific coasts of America to Japan in the fashion of a tribal gathering.  (“The Sinai Gathering” was what we came to name this meeting.)

We planned the first event:  A peace prayer offered by each group in a total liturgy on the plain facing the mountain. There were difficult and tricky protocol issues that perhaps loomed in the background, and yet we were calmed and reassured by an unseen hand that guided our deliberations and helped us translate into Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, or English. We somehow managed to come to agreement with more ease than when we first had met to sketch it all out at the Nile Hilton.


I believe that if peace negotiators had to do their work in this setting, camping together, kept awake by “writ large” thoughts at night and snores and the wind’s wail and dry throats, all feeling the lumpy and sagging mattresses beneath their backs and cheerfully sharing toilet paper and toothpaste—they would be able to reach consensus more quickly.

Sitting on stones, or the gravelly ground, after having done some plain chore like picking up the garbage after a meal, put us in touch with our basic humanity, with our range of experiences, from the bottom to a soul-soaring vision of God’s plan for us as one humankind.  The real issues seemed clear and pseudo-arguments that protect our egos’ veneers were diffused and  unmasked before they could be uttered:  They became discarded as irrelevant.


We arrived at the site at about 10:00 A.M.  We were seated on the ground in the formation of a lotus, each religious community as a petal, distinct, yet one with the plenum, open to the center and facing the mountain.


Moshe Dror (Davidovitch), dean of the Ramat Hanege College in Yeruham, had brought a stone engraved by a laser at MIT with the words “Dona nobis pacem,” which was later on placed on the top of the mountain. We passed the stone from hand to hand, with each person putting some energy and prayer into it. 


Now, the Japanese were in their magnificent white- and red-trimmed robes, hats in black laquer from medieval feudal Japan, with ceremonial fans in their hands.  They were flanked by Shinto groups of three in front and three behind and the center priest in front held a long white whisk.  The whisk was whipped in an arc in all directions to purify the air and remove the demonic forces that might block the prayers.  After chanting an invocation Sutra, the center priest read the scroll with a peace prayer brushed just for this occasion.  Prerecorded cassettes could be heard from the kinds of portable stereos, (which sometime have made us suffer at the hands of rock fans), but this time, we hear gongs and temple chants that the ever-practical Japanese found easier to transport than the heavy temple bells. The recordings gave a curious, ancient dignity to their live bass chants and reading of the peace scroll.  Within the Japanese group, each sub-group were “doing their thing,” with dignity and dispatch and in an incontrovertible order, with the older religious forms going first and the most modern Buddhists last.


The Christians were next. Dean Morton of the New York Cathedral of St. John the Divine presided.  He is a good friend from back in the ‘60s, when he worked in Chicago, and I in Manitoba, (a “geshmakker mensh” / delightful person, I would sigh in Yiddish over him).  He towered, boomed and built the order of the liturgy.  It moved to Coptic Bishop Melkite-rite Christians singing Kyrie Eleison in Greek; to prayers offered in Hebrew, Arabic, English; readings from Psalms, Gospels, and Epistles amidst Halleluia chants; and, of course, the “Our Father,” which each community said in unison with the others, said each in each of the participant’s own tongues.


Our turn had come! My Jewish colleagues, who had been offered the opportunity for individual  time for each branch of Judaism, opted for a unified liturgy. I was very honored to be asked to serve as the shaliach zibbur / the community’s prayer-emissary.


In commemoration of the burning bush, I first removed my shoes as I recited the verse from Exodus (“Remove your shoes.  The land you stand on is holy!”)  Then, I turned to our group with Borkhu et HaShem Hamevorakh / Blessed is God, the Source of Blessings.  They responded, barukh HaShem Hamevorakh li-olam vaed / Blessed is God, Source of Blessings, forever and ever.  After Birkat HaTorah, (asher bochar banu mikol ha-amim / who chose us to receive that torah meant for us Jews), I chanted the words from Exodus 19:1—6, (first Aliyah of the Shavuot reading), and I could hear the echo coming back from off the mountain of my chanting.  We said the last blessing, (asher natan lanu torat emet / who gave us the torah of truth), then the Kedushah of Musaf, which also has the Shema


Then, I urged all present, Jews and non-Jews alike, to join us in a chant, each group in its particular way, so that we would all petition for peace together.  I asked for the petition to be done in the names of those who otherwise will become  victims if peace does not happen.  I asked all to visualize the region united in peaceful interac­tion. Our Anna HaShem Hoshia / Please dear God Save us was joined by Kyrie Eleison / Lord have Mercy and Yah Rachman Ya rachim / O Compassionate One, O Merciful One and Hey Vah! Heh Vah! (peace, in Japanese) while I recited the Malkhiyot prayer of the High Holy Days, (that all the world should know that God created all, that God rules all).  And Samuel Avital and I blew the shofar, and again that echo! Then, Aleinu and BaYom HaHu, and then a Kaddish for the past victims of the Middle East wars.  This was our contribution.


Phillip Deer, the shaman, introduced his prayer with some heart words for the Traditional Peoples’ vision.


By that time, it was noon and the Moslems prepared for the Salaat / the attending [to God] in rows to prostrate themselves to ALLAHU AKBAR / God is great!

The intensity and the significance of the event gave way to a happy buzz of embraces, salaams / peace, handshakes, the sharing of water, and our return to the tents for food and rest.


There was another part too of the planned process for participants. It was important we were divided into smaller groups for sharing, discussion in which we all had co-conveners and representation from the other religions. The work in these was for private consumption.

We needed to rest because next, we were scheduled to climb the mountain at 2:00 A.M. so we could reach the top for sunrise.


We woke at 1:30 A.M., got into vehicles and transported to the Santa Katerina Monastery, then to the wadi behind in which the ascent paths had been carved by an unnamed monk.  He had spent 24 years of his life to make safe the way up the mountain for pilgrims.

May his soul bask before the Glory and reflect that grace!

It was a hard climb.

There were those who were eager and strong ahead of the rest of us.  They were the impatient ones, and, regardless of nationality and religion, they were a tribe unto themselves. There were the older and heavier huffers and puffers who had to take sips of water and little rests and I was among these who came along in the rear.  Another tribe was in the middle, carrying jugs of water.

We needed to help one another to achieve the ascent. (The guide was Danny Rabbinowitz from the Israel Nature Preservation Society: deft, caring, humorous, inspiring, and unsparing to the ego that looked for comfort and consolation.)

Arab helped Jew and Jew helped Arab and both shared with Christian and Buddhist, at times with a hug, a boost, sharing words of encouragement.

How steep that mountain is!  We climbed more by starlight than flashlight, because the latter made  for a retina burn. The dawning day gray, a blueing-pinking at the east, urged us to further spurts of effort. Limbs and lungs did not want to obey. Rest  was immensely inviting, and restarting was difficult. Yet, the spirit was willing where the flesh was not and the spirit won:  We helped one another with the last 500 meters up the rocks to the top, where church and mosque share scant space perched on craggy rock.


And then the top—and the eastern mountain far ahead. Phillip prepared a smoke offering of sage, sweet grass, and cedar, and holding the incense bowl, he began his chant just as the sun’s first pierce came to touch us. We felt presences of prophets and ancestors, chains of traditions from times more ancient than Jethro’s forebears. (Jethro, in Arabic, is Shu’aib, and mentioned in the Quran; and we had passed his tomb on the way.) As soon as the sun was half risen over the horizon, the Japanese banzai-ed / hurrayed it three times, we davven-ed, Zikkr-ed, blew the shofar, and chanted.  Then Pir Vilayat Khan led us in a pledge to serve the spiritual government of the world with our body, mind, and soul.  We each in our way accepted the Kingdom of God and pledged to bring it down into our lives and into our world.

All the bone-tired ague was forgotten for the moment. Soaring in songs celebrating the chains of transmissions that connected us with Sinai, we joined each others’ refrains and hugged.  Oy was it ever a peak experience!


The climb down was not easy either. Here we had to help one another even more.

There were times when it was not clear how one could get down farther, when the path ended, seemingly, at a precipice. And then, out of need, and fear, we looked again, and the boulders to the right or the left turned out to be the stepping-stones that would get us down.

The sheer drop ahead, and the way the mind scrambled to find the possible foothold then saw it, made me think of how we, in so many situations, need the goad of danger and urgency to discover the Gestalt of the possibilities that are ours, that are to our saving advantage. It was a penetrating lesson, carved in stone, on problem solving.

A feast awaited us at the Elijah plateau. “And they ate and they drank and they saw God” (Exodus 24:11 – from the section after Moses wrote the words of the Torah and read it to the people). We also had rides on camels’ backs.


We descended further. To the left of us, on one of these seemingly impossible turns, looking around a rock, we saw huge slabs of rock shaping an A and forming an entrance to a spring welling up from the center of the floor. There was a small slab of rock forming a table before it.  I was deeply moved and impressed by what I felt was a feminine mystery dwelling there.  In  my mind, the place was called, “Miriam’s Well.”  I could not imagine a more perfect place to celebrate women’s mysteries than at that well.

How wonderful it would be, I thought, if rabbinic ordinations could take place at the Sinai and after such a climb.


Exhausted, we reached our tent camp.  Having seen it during the descent  had brought to mind “How goodly are thy tents O Jacob.” It showed how impressive a peaceful tent encampment is and one could feel how Balaam could have been moved from cursing to blessing.

We had more work to do while our bodies got a little rest:  We  had to deal with some of the difficult issues.  Also, there was another cooperative session with evidence of increased integration between the different points-of-view. All of us had gained a perspective beyond political considerations.


The next morning we went to visit the monastery. It is very ancient. It has a library with the oldest extant manuscripts from the time of the Desert Fathers who followed in the wake of the Jewish hermits and healers of the Qumran and Therapeutae-Essene tradition.

We heard a story of one of the times when a Christian monarch from Byzantium wanted to build the monastery on the very top of the mountain.  The monarch sent an architect, who visited the site and afterwards concluded it was not feasible to build on the mountaintop without cutting the top off and leveling some of the ground because the monarch envisioned the monastery to be so large. When the monarch asked the architect why he had not been obeyed, the architect explained. So the monarch ordered the architect to be beheaded.

That person is in my mind forever as the patron saint of those who want to leave holy sites alone to be what they are in their stark reality.


We got word that some monks wanted some words with us. It was the abbot with whom we, the rabbis and Dean Morton, had a great sharing.

As an Orthodox Christian, he told us he was not interested in dialogue.  He believed his church had the spiritual nourishment that Christians needed; and that was enough.

I suggested a model of a rainbow of truths, rather than a mere relativization.  We sparred for a while.

Then, I said something warm:  I acknowledged a conflict I perceived of being an abbot, (which a person decides to do because of a contemplative bent), versus being a manager, (the one who has to face the outside world). He melted to this comment, and we really got to a nice dialogue about Soul and God, Breath and Prayer, and a vocation to serve in the world while also being in the hidden sanctuary.  We had warm feelings of blessing when we parted. I hope to one day be able to return and to davven with him.


So this was my Shavuot.  I learned so much.  I wanted to share some of it in this way with you.

Mordechai Kaplan o’h envisioned the reconstitution of the Jewish People. I can see how the Sinai would be an appropriate place for this to happen for us Jews.  And the same would hold true for all others whose living message is anchored there too, which now also includes Shinto and Buddhism.  God willing, the coming Shavuot retreats will reflect these thoughts in the future.

For this year my kavvanah will be that the mattan Torah / the revelation we are to receive may take us to unprecedented places, to give us what we need for the well being of the whole planet and our families and selves. It is so clear to me that we cannot only lean on the old theophanies which were good for the times they were given, but not necessarily for all future times.

We need to renew the old in the light of the radically different, and to climb this mountain together. Never before have we teetered on so precipitous an edge, pushed by past mistakes and sins into the direction of global destruction.

As I type this in Jerusalem in 1984, I feel that if the Torah is to come forth from Zion, Zion too needs a new Sinai. Otherwise, the new elections will only shift the old Karma a bit this way and that but not lead to a lasting peace.

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