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.
Advertisements

Shabbat Yitro: What Makes a Jewish Leader?

Our parashat hashavua is Yitro. This parashah, in which we find described the revelation of the Jewish path symbolized by the Ten Words, is not named “Great Moments At Sinai” but Yitro [usually vocalized as Jethro in English], which is the name of Moshe’s father in law. Yitro is a Midianite priest – and so our parashah of the great moment of the Israelites standing at Sinai and entering into the Covenant is named for not only a non-Jew but (how to put this)  leader of a non-Jewish religion. 

About the fact that Moshe “intermarried”, this was par for the course at the time; Israelite men found life partners from everywhere. Jewish identity at the time passed through the male line, father to the son.

About Yitro, there is much midrash which recognizes that in the parashah he intervenes to give Moshe excellent leadership advice early on. The commentaries list his virtues, and those of Moshe as well (who was able to take advice from his father in law). The rabbinic focus on Yitro’s obvious leadership qualities must have been foremost in their minds when they settled upon the haftarah for today. Although it does describe a revelatory moment every bit as dramatic as that of Sinai for the prophet Isaiah, the interesting insight has to do not with the overwhelming presence of the Jewish vision of G-d, but of the uniquely Jewish sensitivities required of a Jewish leader.

In that spirit I offer you this weekly source of commentary on haftarah in hopes that you will find as much interest and insight in it as I do:

This week’s haftarah, while found in the sixth chapter of the book of Isaiah, is seen by most as the Isaiah’s inaugural prophecy. In it, Isaiah experiences the famous vision of the divine throne room where the fiery angels praise God with the famous words “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the whole world is filled with His glory” (6:3). What confounds this majestic picture is Isaiah’s response where he seemingly expresses his unworthiness to experience this vision: “Woe is me, I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my own eyes have beheld the King Lord of Hosts.” (6:5) Isaiah’s words were followed up by what seems to be either a punishment or a purification ceremony: ‘Then flew unto me one of the fiery angels, with a glowing stone in his hand, which he had taken with his tongs from the altar and he touched my mouth with it, and said: lo, this has touched your lips and your sin is taken away.” (6:6-7)

Isaiah’s words do not offer us a clear picture of what he saw as his own failings. This gave interpreters an opportunity to express their visions of his failing. One such expression can be found in this midrash: Since he saw the ministering angels praising the Holy One Blessed Be He and did not join them in praising Him, he became troubled, likening himself to a man of unclean lips, for if I would have joined my praise to theirs, I would have lived forever like them. How could I possibly have remained silent? While he stood dumbfounded over the matter, he uttered some unnecessary words: ‘I live among an unclean people’. The Holy One Blessed Be He said to him: ‘Regarding the words ‘For I am a man of unclean lips’, I can forgive you and allow you to bear responsibility for yourself, but regarding My children how could you say ‘I live among an unclean people’? Immediately, he bore the consequences of his words, as it is written: ‘The one of the fiery angels flew over to me with a live coal’. (6:6).” (Pesikta Rabati 33)

This midrash sees the prophet as an advocate for his people. A prophet or leader who would veer from this mission was to be considered sinful and worthy of punishment. This midrash sees Isaiah as falling short of this role and as requiring intervention. Only after this initiation was Isaiah worthy to serve his people. 

This colorful interpretation of Isaiah’s introduction to his role as a prophet is intended as a powerful message to all those who take on the mantle of leadership.

About This Commentary  This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. 

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?

Shabbat Va’Era: How Does G-d Appear To You?

The parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week, begins in an entirely perplexing way:

ב  וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, אֲנִי יְהוָה.

G-d spoke to Moses, saying to him: ‘I am YHVH;

ג  וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב–בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.

I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shaddai but by My name YHVH I was not known to them.” (Exodus 6.2-3)

Now, all it takes is a quick backward glance in the Torah to the stories of G-d interacting with the Patriarchs to see that this declaration is not, exactly, true. The book of Genesis specifically records the Name YHVH in communications between G-d and all three.

So what does it mean to say that G-d was not known by them in the way that Moshe knows G-d? It is easy enough to suggest that each of us knows the sense of a presence of G-d in our lives (or not) in our own way, and so it’s obvious that Moshe, given his special role, would have an entirely different experience of G-d than those who went before him. But there are deeper levels of understanding here.  

In the scholarly discipline of theology this question might be posed as regarding the quality and impact of revelation. Each Patriarch’s experience of G-d is echoed in the later theological insights offered by commentators:

Jacob was the successfully assimilated Jew. He was living far from the Land of Israel and was doing very well – he had become rich, and had wives and children, and no real plans to fulfill the vow he had made as a young man to return home. And then we read: “YHVH said to Jacob, return to the land of your fathers where you were born, and I will be with you” (31.3).  In response, Jacob packed up his wives, children, a lot of sheep, and other effects, and left the home he had made for his ancestral home.

“They did not know the faithfulness implicit in My Name, since I made them a promise and did not fulfill it” – Rashi (France, 1040-1105). Jacob’s experience of G-d was one in which he could put off fulfilling a promise – or perhaps letting it drop all together. Here is the picture of a distant, or even non-existent, G-d. You can say what you like and not follow up, you can do what you like without worry, because there is no Divine follow-up. Until there is. To his credit, Jacob responded with admirable alacrity when YHVH finally appeared to him in a convincing, commanding way. 

Have you ever known anyone who acted as if no one was looking, and then one day suddenly decided to clean up his act? Now, for the first time, living an ethical life is meaningful in a way that sweeps aside all doubt?

Isaac was in the midst of struggling with neighboring tribes to dig a well that they would not contest, and find room for his family to live and thrive. He dug three wells, one after the next, and each became a source of strife. Finally he moved his tents to the next ridge and then “YHVH appeared to [Isaac] that night and said, “I am the G-d of your father Abraham. Fear not, for I am with you” (26.24). In response, Isaac was able to relax and know that he was home. He built an altar and proclaimed the Name there.

“From this it emerges that the text is a pointer, not to G-d’s Name but to G-d’s meaning” – Isaac ben Moses Arama (Spain, 1420 – Salonika, 1494). Isaac was trying to do the right thing, moving from each well when it was contested, but couldn’t get a break. Similarly, his namesake, Rabbi Isaac Arama, was among the exiles expelled from Spain near the end of his life. We know G-d through the characteristics that affect our lives: those who have good lives know G-d as the Compassionate, those who suffer know G-d as the Stern Judge, and those who are rescued from disaster known G-d as the Protector. 

There are those among us who believe that our experience of G-d defines G-d, a breathtaking inversion of the humility of the Psalmist who asserted: 

David’s Song of Ascent:

O YHVH, my heart is not proud, nor my glance haughty,

I no longer run after that which is beyond me, too wonderful for me

my soul is quiet and still, like a weaned child in mother’s arms;

O Israel, hope in YHVH forever!  (Psalm 131)

In the best-known story of all, a messenger of YHVH calls to Abraham not to slay his son Isaac in the infamous and difficult story of the Akedah, the “binding” (22.11). In gratitude, Abraham sacrifices a ram.

“G-d appeared to the Patriarchs as an expression of the natural order; G-d’s miracles were apparent to them without violating it….[but] the People of Israel [will] know My great Name through which I shall perform wonders for them” – Maimonides (Spain, 1135 – Egypt, 1204). Abraham acted without expecting miracles, and he saw them anyway. 

How does G-d appear to you? On this week in which the idea of revelations of G-d is once again misused to justify the evil men and women choose to do, can you find it in yourself to follow those in our past who taught that appearances may be deceiving, and to assert that there is more that is possible? There is, after all, a new revelation to Moshe, because in this week’s parashah we are offered a new understanding of an inspiration, and support, that will move an empire of hatred, split a sea of doubt, and bring us to a mountain of vision.

Shabbat Naso: G-d is in the Annoying Details Too

This week the parashat hashavua (“text of the week”) is called Naso, a word related to the Hebrew idiom for counting. It literally means “lift up the head”, and underscores the importance of truly seeing each person whom one is counting. This is different from the Western idea of “counting heads”, which only tells you how many bodies are in the room; to lift up the head is to look in the face, to take account of (“a count of”) each person in their personhood. It’s an interesting counter (sorry) to the prevailing communal idea: here we note each precious, unique and irreplaceable individual who makes up our community.

That is the catch: a community is, after all, made up of individuals. There’s an old joke: “I love the Jewish people, it’s just Jews I can’t stand.” More accurately, for all of us the ideal of community is ideal, but the individual human beings with whom we share it may be annoying, from time to time. It’s worth recalling the old Hasidic admonition: when your attention is directed outward at others who bother you, remember that the world is made up of reflections, and you, in your turn, are no doubt just as much a bother to others.

This week we get into the specific, annoying details of life with others. This week’s parashah includes the Sotah ritual, much critiqued by feminists who see this as a misogynistic horror. One case in point is that of “any man whose wife may stray and betray his trust” (Numbers 5.12). Any husband who suspects that his wife has been intimate with another man is commanded to bring her to the priest, who puts her through a curious ritual. Drink this, swear that – and if you are guilty, you’ll get sick. If you are not, you’ll be fine. It seems quite shocking until one realizes that, for the time, it may well have been a woman’s salvation. There are cultures where, to this day, a woman whose husband is jealous of her might very well kill her, with or without the help of his male relatives, and without fear of government intervention or punishment. In this case the man may not lay a hand on his wife, no matter what his provocation: he must bring her to the priest.

It is interesting to further note that the Rabbis of the Talmud abolished the sotah ritual because it could only be conducted in a case where the husband had never committed adultery or any other sexual violation; i.e. a woman could not be accused of something that her accuser was doing. “When the adulterers increased in number, the rite of bitter waters was stopped; Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai stopped it.” (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 9.9).

Some of us tend to accuse the Torah of not being timeless. In truth it is far more amazing to consider how progressive it was when it was codified, two millennia ago. It’s worth keeping in mind the old Rabbinic saying, “the Torah speaks in the language of human beings”. What they meant, I believe, is that while the words of Torah are written down by human beings who are doing their best to record what they believe they have heard G-d saying, they do not hear clearly. Just as G-d spoke to the prophets, we are told, by dreams and riddles, so also we who try to understand the truth of our lives and the world we live in are squinting through a lens smudged by our preconceptions, our desire to find what we want to see, and our inability to see what we cannot conceive.

The theological word for perceiving truth is “revelation”. Sinai, when we received Torah, is called a revelatory moment. We are about to remember and re-celebrate it next week with our Shavuot observance. It seems fantastically appropriate, as our Festival of the Giving of the Torah falls this year during Portland’s Rose Festival, to note that according to our tradition’s teachings, Torah’s revelation unfolds like a rose; each generation sees more and more, as the many-petalled rose blooms over the generations of Jewish study that have kept it fed, and watered, and fertilized. “Even the innovation of a future student, wise in the ways of the teachers, is already included in the revelation at Sinai.” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Peah 6).

Torah is not timeless, and individuals are not perfect. It’s the community’s dance with Torah over time that puts the curious bits, and the irritating people, into the context of kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel is responsible, one for another”, and keeps the word of G-d startlingly relevant, when you least expect it, but stay open to the chance.