The other night on the eve of Shavuot, we at Holy Blossom had the pleasure of learning from Imam Suleyman Demiray, the first Muslim chaplain in the Canadian armed forces. He and I had a conversation about the meaning of revelation in our respective traditions because Shavuot is about the giving of the Torah, and, as it happens, we are now in the Islamic month of Ramadan, which commemorates the giving of the Koran in their tradition. I learned a lot from him. One thing that I was really facinated by was his description of Laylat al Qadr–the Night of Power, which is the the night that Muslims believe that their prophet first received divine communication–revelation from God. The thing is, Imam Suleyman taught, Muslims do not agree what the actual date is except that they think it is within the last ten days of Ramadan. So, these last ten days are especially important. Some people will meditate, pray, and study and recite verses on their own–which the imam called searching for the Night of Power. The Muslim doesn’t know what night is actually the correct night, so they prepare themselves for every night. The night is hidden–I take that to mean that revelation is mysterious, ineffable, and yet we can search for it. If we search, we can find glimpses of it.
I was thinking of this when I read the last verse of today’s Torah portion, Naso. After long descriptions about the dedication of the wilderness sanctuary that the Israelites carried with them in their wanderings, we read this, “When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Covenant between the two cherubim; thus God spoke to him.” In Hebrew, the verb root dalet, bet, resh is used three times in the verse: l’daber–”Moses . . . went to speak with God.” Meedaber: “The Voice addressing [Moses] from above.” Vaidaber: “[God] spoke to him.” The second verb, meedaber, is weird. It only occurs twice in the bible. The other time is in the book of Ezekiel. The translation here says, “He would hear the Voice addressing him from above . . .” “Addressing.”
Here is what Rashi explains: “Meedaber is the reflexive form. (Something done to oneself) It is respect for God to say here that God was speaking to Godself, and Moses heard from his inner self.”
Yeshayahu Leibowitz: “In other words, when the Torah states ‘meedaber to him,’ the words ‘to him’ really mean ‘to Godself.’ Moses heard God speaking to Godself, and Moses heard from his inner self. This was not an acoustic event, in which the sound reached Moses, but there was a process in Moses’ self-awareness, whereby, in the bold words of Rashi, he heard God speaking to Godself. he became aware what was happening in the Godhead. He understood God’s meaning, and he heard God’s voice from within his own self.”
So, Moses didn’t literally hear anything in his private moments in the Tent of Meeting. But, he “heard” God, and therefore knew what to teach and command the people.
(From Leibowitz): Rashi does not cite his source here. In fact, ancient translations of the Torah don’t take special not of this word, meedaber, (neither does our translation). Rashi saw something interesting in the text, and he had an intuition of what revelation is really about. Maybe it is not the thunder and lighting and earthquakes of the Sinai story, it is “hearing” silence. It is important to note, I think, that Moses went searching for it, like the Night of Power. “When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with God…”
In our day, many of us, myself included, never go into the proverbial Tent of Meeting. We are too busy to stop and listen or even ask the question, “What is God saying to me?” Many of us question a belief in God “out there” somewhere. If God is some kind of separate being, and I don’t hear or see Him (I say “Him” on purpose), than what is the point. But, I want us to think a little differently. Maybe god is not totally separate, some guy out there, but God is in everything and everyone, luring us, drawing us in for relationship, but we don’t pay attention, we are busy. Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson: “If God permeates creation and works within and through creation, then the question is not longer ‘Does God communicate?‘ since in some important ways everything can be a manifestation of divine-creaturely communication, as the psalmist notes, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God‘ (Psalm 19:2) . . . God’s glory is not restricted to words, but is found in the starry skies, in the planet Earth, and in the poet’s own conscious awareness. Later mystics attest to that same insight: ‘All that people see–sky, earth, and its fulness–are God’s outer garments, manifesting an inner spirit, the Divine which permeates them.‘ God is manifest in all. Guided by this renewed insight, we can seek God in the world, in each other, in our own interiority. Hikes, hugs, and quite contemplation offer moments of gilui ha-Shekhinah, occasions of universal revelation to those who approach the cosmos, each other, and themselves with receptive wonder and expectant silence.”
God meedaber. God is speaking to Godself all around us. What would our lives be like if we listened? If we lived our lives in awe and wonder at God’s love, justice, compassion and beauty in the world, we might be open to learn lessons on how to increase love, justice, compassion, beauty in the world. Our moments of contemplation in solitude, our moments of joy in community, our moments of love in relationship all can be filled of revelation like Moses in the Tent of Meeting.
Now, we do need some humility. In the early 70’s Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great rabbi, scholar, social activist, was asked in an interview whether he is a prophet, and Heschel answers, “I won’t accept this praise . . . It is a claim almost arrogant enough to say that I’m a descendent of the prophets, what is called B’nai Nevi’im. So let us hope and pray that I am worthy of being a descendant of the prophets.”
When one claims that God is talking to them, dangerous things can happen. If this “God” is not “speaking” with love and compassion, it is not God, and this person is not even a ben navi. Maybe would should weigh what we hear from God with the collected wisdom of our ancestors found in our texts.
God reveled and is reveled in our Torah, and they were written by humans. As Artson writes, “That revelation can emerge as a verbal expression, and in Torah, it is indeed the harvest of generation of Israelites who listened faithfully and distilled their insights into stories and laws. To the degree that their attentiveness is and expression of God, to the extent that God guides their discernment, to the degree that their ethical reach reflects God’s breadth of vision and depth of love, to that degree the Torah we actually possess is inextricable human and divine. As with every other aspect of existence, the fusion is pervasive and irrevocable.”
The Torah being human and divine means that we can search for God’s will and Voice, and critique it at the same time. The Torah can reveal to us in private study and especially in partnered or group study. Probing, questioning, searching helps us to listen. God meedaber.
Again, humility is in order. When one claims that they know what the text really means, and what it means is not love, justice, compassion, and beauty–beware.
Psalm 19 says, “There is no utterance, there are no words, their sound is not heard. Yet their shout rings throughout the earth, their words to the end of the world.” God in the world, in our texts is “speaking” to us. Are we listening? When we see someone who is hungry, do we hear God? When we see a couple under the chuppah, do we hear God? When we are suffering in a hospital bed, do we hear God? When we are quiet and alone sitting on the lake at the cottage, do we hear God? Moses went into the Tent of meeting to speak. We can live our lives that way. Maybe not all the time. With a little practice, we can some of the time. If we let God’s silence, God talking to Godself, breakthrough the noise…