Shabbat BaMidbar and Shavuot 5778: Into The Wilderness

Our parashat hashavua is called after the name of the book it opens, BaMidbar, “in the wilderness.” The first verse is both simple and completely mysterious:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai (1:1)
This is the Shabbat before Shavuot, the Festival on which we commemorate the day when the people of Israel stood in G*d’s presence and received from that moment the heart of the Torah, the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words. I invite you to join me in considering that simple, and profound, idea.
First: “G*d spoke to Moshe.” what does it mean to say that G*d spoke?
 
Second: a human being, Moshe, experiences a sense of connection with G*d. We are so used to it in the Torah that we read blithely over it, looking for the action, forgetting as we humans do to be awed by the thought of what it means to be in the Presence of G*d. 
 
Third: what is the content of the davar, the word that G*d speaks? In Jewish tradition, that content is Torah, writ large: our tradition considers all learning that leads to spiritual wholeness to be Torah, not just the five books we keep in a sacred scroll.
Ancient wisdom tells us plainly that such Torah is not heard, or received, easily. We don’t get it on the couch watching television, nor even simply hiking through the woods. It comes when we know that we are standing in the Presence.
 

By three things was the Torah given: by fire, water and wilderness. By fire, as it is written (Exodus 19:18): “Now Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G‑d descended upon it in fire.” By water, as it is written (Judges 4:4): “The heavens also dripped, yes, the clouds dripped water.” And by wilderness, as it is written (Numbers 1:1): “G‑d spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai.”  (Midrash Rabbah)

Fire – This morning I as you awoke to the news of another school shooting. As I write, the news is that ten human lives have been violently ended by gunfire in Santa Fe High School outside of Galveston Texas. This is the twenty-second school shooting since the beginning of 2018, an average of more than one per week. And our hearts are heavy for the violent deaths of all those caught up in violence everywhere: Palestinians in Gaza, Arabs in Syria, Rohingya in Myanmar, African Americans in the United States.
What Torah must we learn by this fire?
Water – The arrogance of modernity caused us to dismiss ancient warnings that link our social ethics to our ability to thrive on the earth; one prominent example is that second paragraph of the Shema: “Take care, lest you become confused and turn away and serve other gods, and HaShem become angry and shut up the the heavens so that there will be no rain, and the ground shall not yield to you, and you will perish.” (Deut.11.16-17) But today we see a divine anger – the earth’s righteous anger, which is just another way of knowing HaShem – expressed in the climate change that we have brought upon ourselves through turning away to worship the gods of convenience, of wealth and power.
What Torah must we learn by this water?
Our Torah was given in the wilderness, we are told; wilderness, chaotic and unsettled, unknown and undefined. We do not receive it in the comfort of our convictions and in the safety of our agreements, but only in the chaos and uncertainty of learning and spiritual growth.
What Torah must we learn in this wilderness?
On this Shabbat in the wilderness, on this Shavuot that commemorates awareness of the Presence found only within that wilderness, may our fear and sadness and anger lead not to despair but to an active desire to brave the uncertainty and plunge in to the unknown, that we might be in the Presence, that we might know the Awe, that we might seek the davar, the Word that heals and helps us to learn, and helps us to do.
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Shabbat Yitro: Jewish Revelation – It’s Not What You Think

Long before either the People of Israel and G*d are ready, they meet at Sinai in this week’s parashah, called Yitro. This parashat hashavua recounts the ultimate Jewish moment of Revelation. This a moment that will be foreverafter enshrined in song and story and liturgy. Yet in our people’s cultural memory we find that there is no clear sense of what really happened. A close reading reveals that much is uncertain.
* Did only Moshe meet G*d, or did all the Israelites see or hear or sense Some Thing?
The Torah itself has a quality of confusion to it here; we read that the Israelites “saw the sounds” of the great crashing boom when G*d appeared at Sinai. Looking at the textual evidence, some Rabbis deduce that all the Israelites heard the actual Voice of G*d, and it blew them many miles away from Sinai. Others suggest that hearing the Voice caused our ancestors to die on the spot, so that they had to be revived by angels. Still other midrashim assert that even Moshe did not encounter G*d’s presence directly, since our holy texts declare that no person can behold G*d and live – and Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our Rabbi, was described as a great leader, but was still only a human being.
* What was the artifact of that meeting – the Aseret haDibrot (the Ten Words), the entire Torah, or something else?
Some midrashim describe Moshe sitting and transcribing Torah, others say G*d wrote it; some seem to indicate the entire Torah, yet the Torah itself describes the two tablets of stone that Moshe brought down from the mountain. How, after all, could the narrative of Moshe’s life – and death – be included in the Torah, not to mention the forty years of wandering, before they even happened? One answer is that Moshe wrote the whole Torah except for that last part – his death – which was written by Joshua, his attendant – but another midrash insists that Moshe himself wrote it, through tears. And what do we do with the midrash that asserts that the entirety of the Torah is only the Name of G*d?
* Finally: what, if one may even ask, was the Revelatory moment like?
One way in which the Rabbis consider this question is by looking at the content of the Aseret haDibrot, the Ten Words that, if not the only content of the Revelation, was certainly central to it. Some of the mitzvot commanded to us, they point out, don’t really need a Revelation from the Supreme Holy Source of All. Any human community left to work it out will certainly learn that in a functional community all must abide by laws such as you shall not murder and you shall not steal. (You can see the full list according to Jewish tradition here – and yes, different religious traditions number them differently!)
  • So our ancestors didn’t need to hear all Ten Words; really, all they needed to hear were the first five, from I Am Your G*d through the fifth, honoring parents, and all the rest could be understood from them.
  • No, says another teacher, you don’t really even need the first five: all you need is to hear I Am Your G*d, conveyed in the first two, to become aware that there is a G*d, a Source and Grounding of life and its meaning, and we could work the other eight out for ourselves.
  • Ah, but did they really need even the first? Maybe, one Rabbi finally suggests, all they – and we – really need to hear is the first word of the first command…no, actually, really only the first letter of that first word.
Which is the letter alef. A letter that makes no sound at all, but is only the awareness that a sound is about to be made. The Jewish approach to revelation does not focus upon establishing the inarguably true content of the Revelation, but upon the key to being able to see that it continues everywhere, in every place. And upon this all depends: the awareness of what is, and what may yet be.

Shabbat Yitro: What Do You Hear When You Hear the Voice of G-d?

What do you hear when you are in the presence of that which matters most? This week we read of G-d’s gift of the Aseret haDibrot, the “Ten Utterances”, to the People of Israel. The Torah text describes thunder and lightning, fire and smoke, on top of Mt. Sinai. But the midrash, teachings of the ancient Sages that lead us beyond the surface level of text toward a deeper understanding of what actually happened, suggests that

in that hour the world was completely silent. No one dared to breathe. No bird sang, no ox lowed, the sea did not roar, and no creature uttered a sound….Then G-d spoke…  (Midrash Aseret haDibrot to Ex.20.2)

Consider the way the world goes silent when you are truly shocked out of your normal self by an experience; everything seems to slow down, sound recedes, and you are left in the enormity of the moment. Nothing is as you expected. It is precisely in this moment that we are capable of seeing that which we cannot see because we have never seen it before. 

This is what Jewish tradition calls “revelation”, and this is the essential Jewish revelatory moment. Although this is a communal experience (we all stood at Sinai together), there is something very personal about it. The Rabbis of the Talmud even suggest that:

every single word that went forth from the Omnipotent was split up into seventy languages. The School of R. Ishmael taught: Like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces: just as a hammer is divided into many sparks, so every single word that went forth from the Holy Blessed One split up into seventy languages.  (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 88b)

Rabbinic commentary suggests that we actually heard very little at Sinai, that it is not possible, after all, for human ears and brains to process something as awesomely Other as the Voice of G-d; if there is such a thing, we are going to be the last to identify it. The choice in the animated movie “Prince of Egypt” to convey G-d’s voice as that of the actor playing Moshe was a way of saying exactly that – we cannot really hear G-d’s voice, but we can hear something in our own hearts and minds that may be an echo of it.

What did the People of Israel really hear at Sinai? It is a question that continues to occupy the commentaries for generations. What seems quite clear from all the commentary is that these oral utterances were heard differently by different Israelites – which is, after all, our own experience, even as the words have long been written down, which might seem to narrow the possible interpretations.

It does not. Each of us stands at Sinai in our own way, and proof of this is in the way each of us responds to a moment in which we feel the Presence of G-d, that is, that which matters most. It pulls us out of ourselves into a larger sense of existence, and a deeper sense of being.

This is where the mystics come down: what we heard at Sinai was not words but the sound of Nothing, that is, No One Thing but Every Thing that is about to be heard. We “heard” the sense of a Presence, and all the rest, in a way, is commentary.

What does that Utterance sound like? Some call it a compelling ethical certainty; others know it as a reassuring grounding in suffering. All of us can hear it in our hearts if we are ready to be still. What might be revealed to you, in any moment, if you listen to the silence of what might be said next?