I want to focus this week on a couple of midrashim from Midrash Tanhuma. The first (Yitro 11) offers this understanding, which is found in several other places in Rabbinic literature: “‘And God spoke all these words saying: I am the Lord.’ Rabbi Yitzhak said: Even that which the prophets would prophesy in the future, all of it was received from [the moment of] Mount Sinai. How do we know this? From the verse, ‘I am making this covenant with its oath not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those who are not here today (Deut. 29:14-15).”

Rabbi Yitzhak claims that everything that later prophets would say was in some way uttered or revealed during the revelation at Mount Sinai. The words of Samuel or Isaiah or Amos or Zechariah were uttered at Sinai. Which is to say that the power of their prophecy derived from the Sinai revelation. Or, the insight of God that they understood in their own time had its roots in the God’s appearance to Israel at Sinai. In witty fashion, the prooftext he uses for this claim itself comes from a moment demonstrably after the Sinai revelation: 40 years later when Moses is taking his leave of the people. And yet, according to Rabbi Yitzhak, Moses’s words then are likewise an elaboration of the Sinai moment.

This is a challenging idea for us to understand. We tend to think in historical terms, which means that we understand moments to be separate: two moments cannot really be linked. What happened at Sinai happened then; what Moses said 40 years later, or what Isaiah said centuries after that, cannot really be the same thing. But Rabbi Yitzhak insists that they can. His understanding of history is different than ours. As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The midrash (Yitro 12) goes on to make a related, more comprehensive claim about the moment of Revelation:

“And God said all these words”–All at one moment. ‘I bring death and give life,’ at one moment. ‘I punish and heal,’ at one moment. ‘I answer the woman on the birthstool, the ones on the seas, the wanderers in the desert, the ones locked in prison; the one in the east and the one in the west, the one in the north and the one in the south; I fashion light and create darkness, make peace and create evil,’ all of these at one moment…’ “What is the meaning of what is written above this passage, that “Mount Sinai was covered with smoke?” (Ex. 19:18) Perhaps it was because of God’s glory. But the Torah comes to teach that it is was because God descended upon the mountain in fire. For the Torah is entirely fire–from fire it was given, and in fire it is completed. Just as the nature of fire is such that if a person comes too close to it he is burned, and if he is too far from it he becomes cold, so with Torah: a person must come near the light of its scholars to warm himself.”

Like Rabbi Yitzhak’s earlier assertion, the Midrash here goes even further in articulating that the essence of the moment of Sinai was paradox. Sinai was the moment of profound unity, not only in history, but in all human experience. It is the taproot of prayer, as the Midrash suggests by referring to God’s ability to answer the prayers of people in far-flung places all at the same time. And it is the moment when those present had some insight into the parts of life and the universe that are beyond our ability to explain: the presence of good and evil, the mysteries of light and darkness. As we say every Friday night, Sinai was the moment when language itself was transcended: “Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad,” ‘Keep’ and ‘Remember’ [the Sabbath day; cf. the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts of the 10 Commandments] were uttered in one word.

Rabbi Yitzhak claims that all prophecy has its roots in this moment. But other thinkers, most prominently in Hasidus, go further. “And these words which I [anochi] command you today [hayom]” (Deut. 6:6) means that Anochi, the same Anochi as in the first word of the Ten Commandments, speaks to us every day. Every day can be Sinai, not only for the prophets, but for us–we who were not at Sinai, but who, according to the Midrash, really were.

Sinai then is not something far off, something remote and separate from us. It is something we can experience every day, if we learn to stop and listen and look for it.

Shabbat shalom.

Parshat Vaera opens with a stirring speech from God. In response to Moses’s lament at the end of last week’s parasha, “Why have you brought misfortune on this people? Why did you send me?” (Ex. 5:22), God reminds Moses of the covenant with the patriarchs. And God movingly uses the sevenfold language of redemption, constituted by the phrases “I will release you,” “I will deliver you,” “I will redeem you,” “I will take you,” “I am the Lord,” “I will bring you,” and “I will give you”  (Ex. 6:6-8).

Just before God utters this famous passage, God tells Moses that God appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and established the covenant with them. This should be reason enough to redeem the people. But then God goes on to say, “And also I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant” (v. 5). The “also” here is problematic. Rashi reads it as referring not to an additional reason to redeem the people, but as connecting God’s mention of the covenant with the act of redemption: “Just as I have set up and confirmed the covenant so I must fulfill it. Therefore I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel.”

Nechama Leibowitz understands this passage to reflect her view that the covenant is a one-sided affair: an unconditional promise by God to the people. She therefore dismisses the reading of Ibn Ezra, who understands the “also” in this passage more plainly: “My decision to send you was also prompted by the fact that Israel repented and cried to Me.” As Leibowitz puts it, “There is nothing in this passage or in the revelation at the bush to suggest that Israel’s redemption was prompted by their good deeds and repentance.” Rather, the redemption from Egypt was solely an act of Divine grace.

The question of whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional is one that we have discussed before. While I agree with Leibowitz that the Exodus narrative is one-sided, and that Ibn Ezra’s claim of God responding to actual “repentance” by the people is implausible, I also hold the view that the covenant is simultaneously conditional and unconditional. That’s a paradoxical statement, of course. But, as my Rosh Yeshiva Steve Wald once put it, “It’s religion. It’s supposed to be spooky.”

God’s love for Israel is described variously as that of a parent and a spouse. The spousal relationship is ultimately a conditional, contractual one. We strive to make it unconditional, but at the end of the day the possibility always exists of dissolving the union through divorce–an act which itself can be overturned through the process of reconciliation. In some way the spousal relationship is always a back-and-forth of living as though love is unconditional while being aware of the underlying fact that it isn’t.

Parental love is more towards the unconditional side. “Be merciful like a father is merciful to his children,” we say during the High Holidays. The unconditional nature of parental love makes forgiveness and grace endlessly possible. Yet the challenge to parents is to relate to their children both with unconditional love and with expectations and conditions–this is the process of child-rearing, tza’ar gidul banim. Seeing the relationship of God and Israel in this way, God is infinitely merciful and graceful, but God also wants us to grow up.

While the Exodus narrative here emphasizes the patriarchal, fatherly nature of God’s unconditional and unilateral love for Israel, the ambiguity of the phrase “and also,” which leads to Ibn Ezra’s statement about the people’s repentance or turning back to God, is a reminder that a relationship is never completely one-sided. Israel has to be ready to leave. The fact that they groan under their labors is a significant fact–because it means they have recognized they’ve reached rock-bottom. God takes note, and the Exodus begins.

Shabbat shalom.

The story of Shemot is a story of miracles. There are the miracles of the plagues. There are the miracles that God does for Moses in order to convince him to lead the people out of Egypt. But it many ways, the story of yetziat mitzrayim hinges on two miracles of a more human sort.

The first miracle is that of Bat-Paro, the daughter of Pharaoh who rescues baby Moshe from the Nile and raises him as a son. “And she opened the basket and saw the child, and behold the lad was crying. Vatachmol alav, And she had mercy on him, and said, ‘This is a child of the Hebrews’” (Ex. 2:6). This is actually a miraculous moment. Here the daughter of Pharaoh, who has decreed that every male Israelite child is to be thrown into the Nile, violates her father’s decree. Where her father had ordered that the boys be thrown into the Nile, Bat-Paro draws Moses baby out—and this becomes the basis of his name: “ki min hamayim mishitihu, for I drew forth form the water” (2:10).

What is so remarkable about Bat-Paro’s action is that, in spite of her awareness of just who Moses is and what the law requires, her empathy and compassion take precedence. To appreciate the magnitude this act, we need to look at the only other time in the Torah when the word chemla, compassion, is used. In Deuteronomy ch. 13, the Torah commands that “when one of your brothers… or one of your kinsmen who is like family to you comes to you in secret saying, ‘Let us go and worship other gods, which neither you nor your ancestors have known… lo tachmol alav, Show now mercy to him.” Instead, you are to put him to death.

In this case, our compassion is normal. The Torah recognizes that our tendency would be to show mercy on a family member—and therefore the Torah has to tell us specifically that we need to submerge our compassion. In the case of Bat-Paro, it is precisely the inverse: here is a child of the Hebrews, someone she should leave to die in the Nile! Miraculously, when she opens the ark, she senses the presence of the shechina, the divine presence, and her mercy is awakened. Without this moment, Moses never comes to be. It is a critical moment in the narrative, one of the great miracles of the Exodus.

A second “minor” miracle of the Exodus story also involves a moment of recognition: “And Moses was a shepherd… And an angel of God appeared to him in a fire from the bush. And he saw, and behold, the bush was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside and look at this great thing—why is the bush not consumed? And God saw that he turned aside to look, and called out to him, ‘Moses, Moses,’ and he said, ‘Here I am’” (Ex. 3:1-4).

What is so remarkable? If we read closely, we see that Moses’s turning aside to look is not to be taken for granted. He sees the bush, and then he decides to act: “I will turn aside and look at this great thing—why is the bush not consumed?” Moses here demonstrates another small but powerful miracle, the miracle of curiosity. He could have kept on walking. He could have come up with some explanation in his mind. But instead he decides to turn and look. And when he does, God calls out to him. The rest, as they say, is history.

Like Bat-Paro, Moses here enacts a small but essential miracle of the Exodus story: If he doesn’t turn aside to look, the rest of the story doesn’t happen. No matter how much firepower God will ultimately display in freeing the Israelites, these two small moments are themselves essential miracles in the narrative of liberation from slavery.

For us, these minor miracles of Bat-Paro and Moshe are perhaps the most important. We live in an age when public miracles like those of the Ten Plagues are hidden from view. But all of us have the capacity to show mercy and compassion. All of us have the ability to see the essential humanity of people in pain—whether or not they are our own children, or even those of our people. All of us have the power to turn aside and look, to be curious, to inquire, and to take action. When we do so, we bring the shechina into the world.

The liberation from Egypt is certainly the work of God. But as Bat-Paro and Moshe remind us, seemingly small human actions are no less important in the story. May we learn from their example.

Shabbat shalom.

An audio recording of this sermon is available here.

Tonight I want to talk about fear.

Yom Kippur can be a fearful day. We are afraid of being hungry. We are afraid of being thirsty. How many of us are already counting the hours until we can eat?

We can be very afraid on this day.

What if we’re hungry? What if we’re thirsty? What if after all those words, after all that singing, after all the rabbi’s exhortations to do teshuva–what if, after all that, I feel nothing? What if God doesn’t answer me? What if God doesn’t exist? What if all of this is a load of hooey?

It’s a terrifying thought. It inspires fear in our hearts.

And the roots of this day prompt us to think about fear.

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us a god who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.'”

Moses is on Mount Sinai. He has been gone for nearly 40 days. And finally they can’t take it anymore: “We don’t know what has happened to him,” the Israelites say. Lo yadanu meh haya lo. We don’t know. Not knowing is the root of their fear. They are plagued by doubts: What if he doesn’t come back? What if he fell off the mountain? What if God killed him? What will we do?

And so, to ease their not knowing, they make themselves a pacifier: they build the golden calf.

This is the greatest sin in the Torah. It prompts Moses to seek God’s forgiveness, which establishes the model of teshuva for us here today. That sin, building the Golden Calf, is rooted in fear. The fear of losing control. The fear of not knowing.


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.

My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Dov Linzer, offered this dvar Torah, which I think is particularly fitting for this week, which marks graduation at Northwestern.

In his instructions to the spies, Moses includes a potentially problematic phrase. In addition to the general strategic evaluation of the land, Moses asks them to make an evaluative judgment, namely to see “whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad.” (Num. 13:19) The medieval commentators generally explain this as part of the military evaluation. But, Rabbi Linzer argues, it in fact paves the way for the central difference between Caleb and Joshua and the rest of the spies. While the despondent spies emphasize only the strategic challenges, Caleb and Joshua included in their report the very words of goodness that Moses sought: “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land.” (Num. 14:7)

I find this observation an approrpriate one for Commencement because the story here is essentially about how we approach knowledge. It is no stretch to say that the spies become a paradigm for our engagement with the world–they interact with new phenomena and make judgments about them. The larger group of spies is unable to see the goodness in the land, or, by extrapolation, in the world. Perhaps more accurately, goodness for them would only come after the empirical facts are dealt with, if it ever comes at all; a moral orientation comes second, not first. Caleb and Joshua, however, approach their discovery with a sense that goodness is there, not in a way that blinds them to the facts, but in a way that sustains their covenantal relationship between the land and the people of Israel.

The Torah is thus instructive about our search for knowledge, which is life itself. In order for life to be meaningful, in order for us to avoid the pitfalls of the relativistic void in which there is no truth except the one each person makes up for him or herself, we have to engage the world with the notion that goodness is possible, that truth is there to be found if only we will look for it.

While the dramatic highlight of the Torah portion of Ki Tissa is Israel’s sin in creating the Golden Calf, the theological and human highlight comes in its aftermath. First we have violence, as Moses leads the Levites and those who are “on God’s side” in a civil war to rid the Israelite camp of the wrongdoers. In the wake of that violence, Moses seeks God’s forgiveness (for the Golden Calf, though one could propose a more radical reading and say that the forgiveness sought was also for the killing of 3,000 fellow tribesmen).

Moses pleads on behalf of the people. God would rather wipe out the people and start over with Moses, but Moses tells God that he wants no part of such a plan. “You can erase me from your book” if you do this, he says. So God relents, and grants a pardon. Moses’s advocacy on behalf of the Jewish people  sets the tone for all future prophets of Israel, and is distinguished from the behavior of Elijah, the subject of the traditional haftarah reading for the Torah portion. Elijah chastises the people, and does not seek their forgiveness from God. Perhaps this is why we traditionally say that Elijah is present at ritual circumcisions and at the Passover seder–the two most serious positive commandments in the Torah. It is as though we are constantly reminding Elijah of our faithfulness to the covenant, a faithfulness that he questioned, but which Moses deeply believed in.

Moses then has a forty-day sojourn on Mount Sinai–his second trip up the mountain–during which God reveals as much of God’s essence as possible to a human being. “You will see my back, but no man can see my face and live.” Moses is altered by this encounter, to the point that his face radiates with light when he descends. Here again he offers us a lesson: While at first the people recoil from him, the Torah gently says “He talked with them.” Moses reaches out to his fellow Israelites, and he begins the 3,000 year conversation of Torah study that we continue up to the present moment. We can distinguish his reaction this time from his reaction before: rather than employing violence to achieve his ends, he engages in teaching and learning. We learn here that Torah must be a tool and a process of reconciliation. Or, in the words of Maimonides: “Words of Torah are not meant to bring upon the world vengeance, but mercy, lovingkindess and peace.” (Laws of Shabbat 2:3)

Finally, after he has finished teaching, Moses dons a veil, which he would remove only to talk with God. This is a remarkable, evocative image, bringing to mind the veil of a bride at her wedding, which signifies her intimate relationship with her husband. It also evokes the veil of W.E.B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folk, which he used to describe the double-consciousness of African-Americans, inhabiting multiple worlds simultaneously. The veil can create a beauty of intimacy, and a danger of division. While Moses’s veil was unique, we all wear a veil all the time (see my dvar Torah from last week about clothing and identity). How and when we remove our veil, and how we relate to the rest of the world, constitute the enduring questions of Jewish consciousness.

Shabbat shalom.

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.

Shabbat shalom.

There are a lot of miracles in the story of the Exodus from Egypt, which we begin reading this week with Parshat Shemot. There are of course the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Sea, the provision of manna. But there are two miracles that really ground the entire narrative: the miracle of the burning bush, and the miracle of Pharaoh’s daughter.

The burning bush is an obvious miracle: though it burned, “the bush was not consumed.” There is obvious symbolism in the miracle: that God’s promise was not extinguished in the midst of slavery in Egypt; that the human spirit of the Israelites was not extinguished either. Yet the greatest miracle of the story, it seems to me, is that Moses noticed: ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ (Ex. 3:3) What would have happened if Moses hadn’t noticed? The rest of the story may not have happened.

Yet Moses’ entire life was rooted in another act of noticing and acting, that of Pharaoh’s daughter: “The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him.” (Ex. 2:5-6) The pity of Pharaoh’s daughter in this scene is remarkable, as her father had declared that any Hebrew baby boy was to be killed. Yet her sense of pity overtook her. (Rashi comments that upon opening the basket she beheld the Divine presence. Perhaps that presence is most acutely felt in beholding a crying and helpless child.) Had she not acted in this way, we have to wonder how the story would have been different.

Though Exodus is an epic adventure of grand acts, national politics, and divine warfare, it ultimately finds its deepest expression in the small but miraculous acts of ordinary people doing ordinary, yet extraordinary, things. And in particular, the miracles of the Exodus–the overturning of an entire world order based on ‘might makes right’–find their roots in the miracle of the human capacity, our capacity, to notice and to act.

Shabbat shalom.