Listening at Sinai
This week our Torah portion is Yitro which contains the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances, or as we usually say, the Ten Commandments. We have all seen the commandments represented in art in synagogues or monuments. We have all seen the Charlton Heston movie. Many of us are pretty familiar with what the Big Ten are. I want to comment, though, on our people’s experience of standing at Sinai and receiving these words from God. What is revelation?
I would like to turn to an essay written by Rabbi Plaut in 1966 in Commentary Magazine. He was one of many Jewish leaders who filled the August issues with comments on Jewish belief. Here are some of his words about revelation:
Divine revelation is a self-disclosure of God. It requires God as well as [humans] to give it reality, for all revelation is a form of communication. To reveal need not imply speaking-and-hearing—perhaps it never does; it always means the communication of selfness and essence. Divine revelation is God’s-accessibility-and-[humanity’s]-knowing.”
First, Rabbi Plaut is saying that what our people experienced was not literally audible sounds from God, for God does not literally have vocal chords. Our people at Sinai experienced God in God’s divine essence. He continues:
. . . at Sinai God revealed no words, no commandments, only Anokhi, “I am.” The rest was, literally, commentary—human commentary, the attempt to translate the apprehension of God’s being into the imperatives of human behaviour. “God spoke” is a figure of speech, denoting, “This is what I know God wants of me.” It is the consequence of revelation, not the revelation itself.
Our Torah, our 613 mitzvot (yes, there are more than ten!), is our people’s ancient attempt to put write down the obligations that arose from the revelatory experience at Sinai. All of religious Jewish life is to continue to “listen” to that inaudible sound that God gave, and maybe continues to give so that we, as individuals in a community, can respond with love, loyalty, justice, and mercy.
Every Shabbat and Holy Day (and Monday and Thursday) we try to recreate the scene at Sinai with our Torah service. We go up the mountain (the bima), and we hear words of Torah like Moshe speaking to the people. We can also have this experience when we study or pray, look into the eyes of another. What is God calling me to do? How should I respond to this revelation?
This Shabbat as we study the experience of our ancestors when they first as a people experienced the commanding “voice” of God, we remind ourselves to open our ears to continue to listen.