Shabbat Yitro: Seeing Requires Silence

On this Shabbat our parashat hashavua recounts the moment when our ancestors stood at the foot of Mt Sinai and underwent a transformative moment.

Many have asked what exactly we saw and heard in that moment, when the earth shook and the shofar sounded and fire lit up the mountain. On this erev Shabbat I want to ask how it was that we were able to see, and hear; in other words, not what happened to us, from some exterior force or awareness, that we were able to experience the moment, but what came from inside us?

Parashat Yitro describes the day when we arrived at the area around the foot of the mountain:

וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃

They traveled by way of Refidim and arrived in the wilderness of Sinai, and they camped there; as one, Israel was camped opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19.2)

It has been noted that the phrase “Israel was camped” is in the singular, as if all Israel were of one mind and heart. It has also wryly been noted that this is the only time in all of Jewish history when this was the case. But that doesn’t erase the significance of the lesson. six verses later “the people answered as one, saying ‘all that HaShem has spoken we will do!” (Ex.19.8)

What happened in those moments is that this famously stiff-necked and bad-tempered group all somehow were as one. 

Most commentaries on the Sinai moment wonder what was heard. The most striking answer is that we heard nothing: no thing, the pregnant moment just before every thing became potentially possible. There is an undefined, undefinable moment of silence when our fears and hopes are all stilled and we are capable of looking beyond ourselves to what might yet be.

When the Torah was given, no bird chirped, no fowl fluttered, no ox lowed, the angels did not fly, the serafim did not utter “holy holy holy,” the sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak. Then it was heard: Anokhi…” (Exodus Rabbah 29.7)

We heard nothing, and that was when we began to hear. 

This is the silence – absolute, inner and outer – out of which creation arose in the beginning. It is the same silence that is the only way we can see beyond ourselves and perhaps feel, for a moment, the unity that our ancestors knew at Sinai, when they forgot themselves and saw, and heard, as one.

Fill us as the tide rushes into the reeds in the marsh

Fill us as the rushing water overflows the pitcher

Fill us as light fills a room with its dancing.

Let the little quarrels of the bones and the snarling

of the lesser appetites and the whining of the ego cease.

Let silence still us so you may show us your shining

and we can out of that stillness rise and praise.

– Marge Piercy

On this Shabbat, consider what you can hear when you quiet your self. On this Shabbat, may you put aside all the quarrels and snarling and whining of life for just a bit, and contemplate this ancient truth: l’kha dumiyah tehilah, “to you, silence is praise.”