D’var Torah by Rabbi Noah Arnow: Torah helps us see world beyond our ‘normal’



What happens when we look at a painting?  We see a familiar world through the eyes and brushstrokes of another, and suddenly it looks different from the way we normally see it.

Poetry uses words we know to create unexpected images and comparisons that bring us into another’s mind and allow us to experience the world differently than is normal for us.

These moments or, as scholar Michael Fishbane calls them, caesuras, tear the fabric of our reality, of our normal.

Moments of intense emotion, whether of celebration or tragedy, can do this. Time spent in nature also can give us glimpses of a different reality.


Shavuot, which begins Saturday night, celebrates “the time of the giving of our Torah,” zman matan torateinu.  Construed narrowly, Shavuot commemorates God giving the Torah to the Israelites on Mount Sinai — the forging of a covenant between God and the Jewish people.

At Mount Sinai, our tradition teaches that God told Moses the Torah and that also, in some way, God revealed God’s self to Moses and the people. It was a glimpse behind the curtain of our normal reality, a vision of a truer reality, a tear in the fabric of the normal.

This backstage, behind-the-curtain peek let us realize that there is something deeper, bigger, more real than the reality we usually experience. In some way, religion is all about sneaking more peeks behind that curtain, creating more moments of experiencing that not-normal, altered reality.

Prayer, fasting, feasting, hallucinogens, singing and chanting, study, physical pain, physical pleasure, silence, meditation, physical labor, serving people in need — these have all been paths seekers have traveled to induce moments of caesura, of a tear in the fabric of reality to sense something more real.

One can describe these as moments when God is present. Or they can be just “spiritual highs” or powerful moments. We can try to create them, but we can also try to be attuned to them, per the title of Michael Fishbane’s book, “Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology.”

Shavuot was, in our people’s history, when we could not help but be attuned to the sacred. But we could be more attuned to noticing these caesuras in art, music, literature, nature, emotion, human interaction — in virtually every life experience.

Every moment Torah is being revealed, God is present, and the curtain behind this reality is parted just a little so that we can see behind it. If only we can notice.

Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.