You might know a whole bunch of songs to sing with children on Hanukkah and Passover. But the holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates God’s giving the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, has its own (less-well-known) modern canon of children’s music. One particularly popular song is called “Little Har Sinai.” (Har is the Hebrew word for mountain.)
The song tells the story of several mountains vying to be chosen as the site of the giving of the Torah — touting their strengths and impressive features. Little Mount Sinai observes the competition, sighing, “I know I’m not tall, I know I’m not wide/How can the Torah be given on me? I am as plain as can be — you see.” But in the end, of course, God does choose Sinai as the site for the giving of the Torah, valuing simplicity and humility. It’s a catchy song with a child-appropriate moral. But Mount Sinai — the same mountain that shook with smoke and lightning at the moment of revelation — as small and simple? Where on earth did that idea come from? You guessed it — today’s daf!
And why are we talking about humble mountains at all? On yesterday’s daf, we read that:
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba says that Rabbi Yohanan says: Any person who has arrogance within him will eventually stumble by sinning with an adulteress.
This statement leads to a discussion of arrogance and its opposite — humility. In the context of this discussion, the Gemara quotes Isaiah 57:15: “For thus says the High and Lofty One that inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, also with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.” God dwells among the modest and meek, precisely in order to give them strength and support.
As part of this conversation, Rav Yosef teaches:
A person should always learn from the wisdom of his Creator, as the Holy One, Blessed be He, disregarded all of the mountains and hills and rested His Divine Presence on Mount Sinai. And He disregarded all of the beautiful trees and rested His Divine Presence on the bush.
Not only did God choose a modest mountain for the revelation of the Torah, God appeared to Moses in a humble bush, not an impressive tree. While I don’t know how many impressive trees there actually were in the wilderness of ancient Midian, the Talmud emphasizes that God chooses small and humble sites for revelation and relationship.
Rav Hisda offers us another element to this tradition:
The Holy One, Blessed be He, disregarded all of the mountains and hills, and rested His Divine Presence on Mount Sinai, and He did not raise Mount Sinai up.
Rav Hisda’s teaching offers us another important element of this tradition: God didn’t choose Mount Sinai and then transform it into a grander or more impressive mountain worthy of being the site of the giving of the Torah. No, God chose it as it was.
The idea that God chooses to be present with the humble and the contrite is a powerful one, but it is not a Cinderella story. God doesn’t turn Mount Sinai into a more impressive mountain; the burning bush remains a bush. These natural elements are enough, just as they are, to host God’s presence. And it is one of the magnificent aspects of the Holy One that God makes these choices. As Rav Avira (and some say Rabbi Elazar) explains:
Come and see that the attribute of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is not like the attribute of flesh and blood (i.e. not like people). The attribute of flesh and blood is that the elevated sees the elevated, but the elevated does not see the lowly. But the attribute of the Holy One, Blessed be He, is not like that. He is elevated but sees specifically the lowly, as it is stated: For though the Lord is high, yet He regards the lowly. (Psalms 138:6)
Read all of Sotah 5 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 3rd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.