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.
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Shabbat Yitro: What does the Voice of G-d Sound Like?

This week parashat Yitro calls us to stand once again at the foot of a mountain as a people, brought together not by lines of descent but by a willingness to go forward, to cross over, to live with uncertainty in the hope of reaching a vision.

One of the most compelling uncertainties of Jewish religious tradition centers on G-d. It begins when Moshe asks, “how shall I say when I am asked how I was sent?” and receives the reply: Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “What Will Be is What Will Be”. As if we were children asking to know what will happen when we grow up, all Moshe is told is that Time Will Tell. It has been noted already by Rabbinic scholars and interpreters that this is not a name. It may be, rather, a way to describe Eternity – all time and all space, All, Here, Now.

And what did it sound like, to hear a voice one might – during or afterward – attribute to G-d? Coming out of a bush, of all things? According to our parashah this week, G-d spoke:

Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet G-d; and they stood at the foot of the mount. Mount Sinai was altogether on smoke, because G-d descended upon it in fire; and smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount trembled violently. When the voice of the shofar grew louder, Moses spoke, and G-d answered him by a voice.  (Exodus 19.17-19)

What does that mean, “by a voice”? what did our ancestors hear? what are we, by extension and by tradition, called upon to hear?

It is useful to compare another fascinating story of that mountain, preserved in our sources, that happened at another time:

[The Prophet Elijah traveled] forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mountain of G-d. And he found a cave, and hid there; and, there, the word of G-d came to him, saying to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ …. G-d said: ‘Go forth [from the cave], and stand upon the mountain before G-d.’ And, behold, G-d passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks; but G-d was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but G-d was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but G-d was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.  (I Kings 19.8-12)

According to our Jewish intuition, developed over millennia, the sound of G-d’s voice is not a great and thunderous, frightening, obvious sound. The phrase “by a voice” in the Sinai story hints to us that hearing G-d is not necessarily the sound of a voice, although it might be “a still, small voice.”

G-d’s voice might also come to us as a realization of something true for our lives; or as an invocation of something real when we find ourselves standing before it; or as a realization, after the fact, that we were in a place of connection to a sense of something greater than our own individual small selves.

What was, is, and will be.

Such an awareness comes to us in small moments, but the impact is earth-shattering. That still, small, certain voice says that you are an essential part of all that is, carry within you the potential of all that will be, and are a necessary, cherished part of what will be remembered. You are part of us, and of All That Is, Always.

On this Shabbat may you hear what you need to hear, and may the source of that hearing delight and unsettle you with a new awareness of the places where truth resides.