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?

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Shabbat Re’eh: Seeing and Being Seen

This week we read from parashat Re’eh. The parashah’s name translates to the imperative “see!” or “behold!”. We are urged to see that before us lies blessing and curse, and also (in a further development of the connotations of the verb) to “see”, and “understand”, that it is up to us to discern one from the other on “the path that I [G-d] set you upon”. (Devarim 11.28)

So watch your step.
A parashah like this might remind us of…
…hiking through the forest, where rocky footing might cause you to wrench an ankle if you’re not looking.
…walking into a situation at work and seeing for the first time that there’s a problem that you never noticed before.
…feeling sad or grumpy all day until you are suddenly in the presence of someone you love, and understand how blessed you are.
Jewish tradition sets a great deal of value upon taking care to see, in all its meanings, before acting. In the Talmudic tractate Pirke Avot it is written, “Who is wise? the one who can see what a possible result [literally, what is being born].” It is true that, often, to see is to feel compelled to respond: when we see each other in need, we want to help. When we see suffering we seek to alleviate it. And when we see joy, the heart lifts.
There are many things that we see. There are also many things that we think we have seen, and have not; things that we have not seen but can vividly imagine; and that which we long to see, but will not. The Haftarah for this Shabbat, from Isaiah 54, invited our ancestors, in the midst of the experiences of occupation, destruction and exile, to imagine something unseen:
I will lay gems as your building stones and make your foundations of sapphires.
Your battlements will be rubies, and your gates precious stones,
the whole encircling wall of gems. (Isaiah 54.11-12)
In the Talmud there is an ancient story of a skeptic who studied this text under Rabbi Yokhanan in a beit midrash, a study hall, after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, but did not believe it.
He mocked the teaching, saying  “even gems of small size are not easily found!”
Some time later the skeptic was on a ship and saw a vision; two angels were carving a giant gem.
The skeptic asked the angels what they were doing, and they replied, using Rabbi Yokhanan’s words exactly, “we are preparing this for the gates of Jerusalem in the future.”
The amazed skeptic returned to the Rabbi in the study hall and cried out to him, “teach, my master, for you teach wonderfully! I have seen that which you have taught, and can say that it is true.”
The Rabbi turned to the skeptic with a scowl. “And if you had not seen it, you would not have believed it?”
And he placed his eye upon the skeptic, who was forthwith turned into a pile of bones.  (Bava Batra 75a)
The reaction of the Rabbi seems disturbing. Does he kill the skeptic? Such wonder working is clearly beyond today’s Rabbis. Perhaps more likely, something about the exchange between the skeptic and the Rabbi reduced the skeptic to inconsequentiality. Consider:
In our parashah, the first verse commands us to see. The skeptic, demoralized and unwilling to see the possibility of hope in his situation, mocked those who taught others to see it. This story underscores our ethical responsibility to make that effort to re’eh, “see!” and “understand!” what we are seeing, and what is likely to be born out of that which we see.
And in the final verses from this parashah, we are reminded that we are also seen: “Three times a year…you shall go up to the place G-d has chosen and be seen before ה your G-d”. Devarim 16.16) We are not the center of the universe; as we see, so we are seen, each from our own perspective. So much that we mean to be is misunderstood in the seeing; that is why the ethic of marat ayin, “that which presents to the eye” is such an important concept to remember.
The Rabbi merely saw the skeptic for who he was. Neither he, nor the skeptic’s disbelief, was what turned him into a pile of bones; he did that to himself, by making himself useless as a member of a community that strives to see, and needs encouragement from each other as we try our level best to understand.

Shabbat Terumah: In The Details

“This too is Torah, and I need to learn it.” Two millennia ago the renowned sage Rabbi Akiba asserted that Torah is not only that which is written on the parchment of the sefer Torah, the Scroll of Direction (the Hebrew verb root h.r.h means “teaching”, and also “aiming” as well as “indicating direction”). Torah is also expressed through the exegesis that gives us midrash, “investigation”, and halakhah, “path”. This larger sense of Torah is contained, more or less, in Talmud, the sixty-three tractates (volumes) that derive from the Five Books of Moshe. But it is not contained fully, for it was already acknowledged even then that there was more that would unfold, and in a very real way, “that which a veteran student will, in the future, innovate before his teacher was already said to Moshe at Sinai” (Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 17b).

Clearly, then, there is more to any given parashah than meets the eye.

The parashah we read this week, parashat Terumah, gives us a minutely-detailed description of the Mishkan that the Israelites were to build in order to evoke the Presence of G-d in their midst. Chapter after chapter, verse after verse, is devoted to the topics of what goes inside the Mishkan, what goes outside, and of what it is to be made. The dimensions of objects as well as their composition, number, color, and purpose are all specified.

It is easy to grant that such detailed plans for the construction of the Mishkan existed, but why were they sanctified? Why are we to read them with all the honor and respect due to every word written in the Torah? For example, what are we to make of the first verse we read in the second year of the Triennial Cycle:

You are to make the Mishkan with ten curtains; skilled workers shall make them of fine twined linen, in blue, purple and red, with kheruvim. (Ex.26.1)

One might see this as exactly the challenge offered to the “veteran student” mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud passage above. What are we to make of this verse? If we accept that each word and each verse has value prima facie, then the challenge is not to the text, to prove its relevance, but to us, to prove our ability to see that relevance. It’s not so far away. Much can be understood and derived from such a verse once one enters the interpretative world of our tradition.

Here are three short interpretations:

1. In Jewish tradition, one important way to demonstrate the respect we show for that which we hold sacred is to bring our best effort to it. “Skilled workers” are to make the curtains. When we are building something important, than, we are to look through our community for those best suited and most capable. Art is best done by the artistic.

2. Blue, purple and red – תכלת, ארגמן ותולעת שני – tekhelet, argaman v’tola’at shani – are important colors in the ancient Near East, all of them bright and deep (and expensive). The blue tekhelet color is also that which we are commanded to include in the fringes on the corners of our garments. Perhaps in that way the fringe – the tzitzit – is meant to remind us of the Mishkan, and what it symbolizes.

3. Kheruvim are fantastic creatures that were imagined to be among the animal and human-like servants that surrounded our G-d; for example, G-d is described as “riding on the back of a kheruv” into battle with Pharoah at the Reed Sea during the Exodus. They are symbols of divine power and awe.

at the entrance of the palace of Nineveh; now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

A kheruv (?) at the entrance of the palace of Nineveh; now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City

Our ancestors guarded every detail of the Mishkan for the ages because it was the most important structure they built; they built it together, they brought their best people to it, and they made it a place that evoked their sense of awe for the holy. In such a place, that means so much, there is no such thing as too many details, for every single one is a precious part of the whole. As are you and I in the building of our own Mishkan today.