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.

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One of the striking features of the Book of Deuteronomy is the very fact of Moses’s speech: Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe, “These are the words that Moses spoke” (Deut. 1:1). What makes this striking is that Moses describes himself early on in Exodus as precisely not a man of words: lo ish devarim anochi, “I am not a man of words” (Ex. 4:10). Yet here we have an entire book of Moses’s words.

This leads us to ask: Are these really Moses’s words? What does the Torah mean by saying that they are his? The Sifrei, a midrashic collection on Deuteronomy, is sensitive to this. In virtually every instance where Moses introduces his remarks with the preface, “And I told you, saying,” the Sifrei comments, “I did not speak it of my own accord; rather it came from the mouth of God.” Perhaps the Sifrei means that God spoke through Moses. Or perhaps it means that the words Moses spoke were given to him by God. Or maybe it means that Moses thought of the words, and that God agreed with them. At the heart of the matter is the question: How do we know when God is speaking?

The midrash contains numerous reflections on the moment of revelation, many of which focus on the paradoxical nature of revelation: God speaks to the Israelites at once, and everyone hears the voice appropriate to them. “Here is how the Voice reached Israel: each according to his capacity to hear. The elderly heard according to their capacity, the young men according to theirs, the adolescents according to theirs, the children according to theirs, etc.” (Tanhuma 25). The Talmud interprets the verse, “Moses spoke and God answered him in a voice” to mean that God spoke to Moses in Moses’s own voice (Berachot 45a). All of which is helpful, but also confusing: How do we know when the voice we’re hearing is our own, and when it is the voice of God?

Since I landed in America from Israel on Wednesday morning, I have been helping to lead the training for our first cohort of AskBigQuestions fellows. In a few weeks, a total of 13 Hillel professionals will supervise 60 undergraduate fellows working on 13 campuses across North America as they convene diverse groups of people for conversations that matter. Later in the fall we will roll out a nationwide campaign to bring ABQ conversations to colleges and universities all over the continent.

The training has been exceptional. Our facilitators, Yarrow Durbin and Karen Ehrlichman of the Center for Courage and Renewal, have masterfully led this diverse group in developing our habits and skills of listening, creating space for diversity, and managing the reality and potential of paradox. The supervisors and fellows are learning how conversations about life’s big questions can build community, develop trust, and deepen connections among diverse groups of people.

At the heart of the work are some phenomenally difficult questions: How do we truly listen? How can a diverse group all share a sense of belonging? How do we speak our own personal truths while acknowledging that larger truths can exist?

Go back to the midrash: These are not new questions. As I told the fellows when we began, what we’re doing with AskBigQuestions is radically old. We are, to borrow a phrase, pouring old wine in new casks. We are doing what the Torah has invited and challenged us to do for 3,000 years: to create a home for one another, and to create a home for God in the world.

When Moses speaks, God talks through him. A question for us is: Can we listen to the voice of God in others and in ourselves?

Shabbat shalom.

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.

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.