The Talmud (Brachot 45a) records the following discussion: From where do we know that, in the ancient practice of reading the Torah, when an interpreter would translate the Hebrew words of the Torah reader into Aramaic, the interpreter was not allowed to raise his voice above the level of the reader? From the verse: “Moses spoke, and God answered him in a voice.” What does the text mean when it says “in a voice?” asks the Talmud. “The voice of Moses,” meaning the same volume as Moses’s voice.

The medieval commentary of the Tosafot, among others, asks an important question on this statement: If the relationships in the metaphor work like this: Speaker is to Moses as Interpreter is to God, how can the Talmud say such a thing? How can the Talmud imply that God is not the speaker at the moment of revelation, but merely the interpreter? Tosafot, following the explanation of Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (Rif) answers that God spoke to Moses in a loud voice, and Moses would then answer God in a loud voice—and yet God would still speak loudly so that Moses’s voice would not be louder than God’s.

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, author of the 19th century Hassidic work Mei Hashiloach and known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe, offers his own understanding of this reading. The Ishbitzer points out that God could simply inscribe the words of Torah directly on the hearts of the Israelites. Why then does God need Moses in the first place? Why speak? Why not simply communicate directly to the people’s hearts? He answers that, in essence, God performs an act of tzimtzum, divine contraction, in order to make space for Moses to achieve the spiritual heights that Moses achieves. God allows revelation to occur not through supernatural communication, but through the natural, physical process of speech and hearing, complete with all its deficiencies and ambiguities, with the need for interpretation and translation inherent in any act of human communication. In so doing, God allows for the gap between divine and human in which human becoming—as epitomized by Moses—can take place.

An even more radical reading comes from Prof. Art Green in his book Seek My Face, in which he goes back to the statement in the Talmud that “God spoke in the voice of Moses.” Though the Talmud seems to mean that God spoke at the same volume level as Moses, Art reads the line at face value: God actually spoke in the voice of Moses. That is, at the moment of revelation, the voice of God and the voice of Moses were identical, indistinguishable. Art thus takes the Ishbitzer one step further, making the gap between divine and human even more tantalizingly close.
And yet the gap persists. No matter how close or far we may posit God, no matter where on the Maimonidean to Hasidic spectrum we may lie, the whole concept of revelation rests on the notion that there is something beyond what we experience—something deeper, something richer, something truer. Whether God is far away in heaven or at the threshold of our lips, God is still beyond us, calling us to be something more than what we are and yet something we are capable of being.

Shabbat shalom.

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