The highlight of the Torah reading of Yitro is the Revelation at Mount Sinai. Chapters 19 and 20 of Exodus, which narrate the story of the revelation, are some of the most mysterious and difficult of the entire Torah. What makes these chapters particularly challenging are the paradoxical motions of their words: it becomes unclear who is speaking when and what precisely is happening.
One good example of this is Exodus 20:14, which begins with the words, “And all the people saw the sounds.” Rashi comments that at the moment of revelation, the normal laws of nature itself were suspended, and one could see sound, and hear visions.
The Talmud glosses Ex. 19:19, “Moses would speak, and God answered him in a voice,” by asking, “What voice did God use to answer Moses? Moses’s own voice.” Similarly, the midrash relates that all the people heard the same thing, but heard it in the voice that was appropriate to them: Old people heard the voice of old people, babies heard the voice of babies, and so on.
On more than one occasion I have heard people criticize these chapters, arguing that they are good evidence of why the Torah needed a better editor. Yet, as Prof. Benjamin Sommer of the Jewish Theological Seminar (formerly of Northwestern) has described, the contradictory and paradoxical motions of the Torah’s narration are intentional. Paradox is the point. (Or, as a teacher of mine used to say, ‘It’s religion, it’s supposed to be spooky.’)
The moment of revelation is one that of necessity defies the ability of language, and even the human capacity of understanding. That doesn’t mean we can’t catch glimpses of it. The beauty of being human is our ability to occasionally ascend the heights, and sense what lies beyond the plain facts of the material world.
These are the moments of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called Radical Amazement. They may come to us when we experience a profound moment of artistic genius, a poem that resounds in our souls, or beholding the miracles of God’s creation. These moments are a shadow of the moment at Sinai, the moments when life is made meaningful and we engage our deepest capacities as spiritual beings. They are moments beyond language, moments of paradox and beauty.