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Divre Rabbi Dov on
the weekly Torah Portion

Parashat yitro
February 14, 2009/20 Shebat 5769
Shemot/Exodus 18:1-20:23

The parasha can be divided into the following sections:

Section One: 18:1-26………The encounter with Yitro

Section Two: 19:1-25………The preparations for revelation

Section Three: 20:1-7………The preface to revelation

Section Four: 20:8-14………The Ten Utterances

Section Five: 20:15-18……...The nation’s fear

Section Six: 20:19-23………The covenantal altar

This analysis assumes that one has read the parasha, but not that one must know Hebrew. My interpretation of the messages of the parasha depends on my reading of the original, but I will try to convey my analysis fully to those who read the portion in English.

At the center of this parasha is the national epiphany at Mt. Sinai, including the transmission of the “ten statements.” (Had the Torah wanted to convey the sense of these pronouncements as commandments, the text would have read, ‘aseret hamitzvoth, and not, ‘aseret habibberot, the ten “pronouncements.” The translation, ten “commandments” is unfortunate. I shall return to this point shortly.)

What, exactly, did our ancestors experience at Mt. Sinai? A close reading of the text this week reveals the ambiguity surrounding the answers to this question. We know that the people saw many different sights. They saw torches of flame, a smoking mountain, even voices, and the voice of the shofar—but the text does not convey anything about what the people might have heard! This conflation of modalities in sense perception is a striking feature of our ancestors’ encounter with God.

Noticing this extraordinary detail—one easily overlooked since we assume the experience to have been primarily auditory—the ancient rabbis asked: How many utterances did the Children of Israel hear directly from God’s mouth? Rabbi Joshua ben Levi answered, “Two utterances.” The Rabbis responded, “All of them.” (Pesiqta Rabbati 22:5). The sages voice several concerns. One is the verse which appears after the statement of ten utterances: “The nation said to Moses: ‘You speak to us, and indeed, we shall listen—as long as God not speak, lest we die.’” (Exodus 20:16). According to the rabbis, this narrative reads chronologically, and the nation approached Moses after experiencing all ten utterances. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, on the other hand, reads the narrative as the nation rushing towards Moses after having experienced the first two utterances (I am the Lord your God, and, Make no graven images before me….). Since, however, the text reads more smoothly without this interlude, he assumes that the editors of the bible were not committed to chronology as the only way of organizing the text. Furthermore, in Devarim Rabbah, the rabbis cite the verse from the Song of Songs, May he (i.e., God) kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, and apply this verse metaphorically to the epiphany at Mt Sinai. The word, “kisses” is plural; as a matter of rabbinic hermeneutics, a plural noun suggests the number “two,” since “two” is the first quantity of plurality one encounters. Therefore, the nation experienced two of the ten utterances directly from God. A third possibility suggested in the Pesiqta Rabbati is that the people learned all 613 mitzvoth of the Torah at Sinai—611 from Moses, and only the first two utterances directly from God.

Following this tradition, the Chasidic master Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropczyce (1760−1827), in his Zera Kodesh (2:40a, Jerusalem, 1971) conveys a teaching he heard from his own master, Rabbi Mendl Torum of Rymanov (d. 1815). He taught that at Sinai our ancestors heard only the first letter of the first word of the first utterance, the alef of the word, ‘anochi, “I,” as in, “I/’anochi am Adonai your God ….” (Exodus 20:2). This mystical reading of the text emphasizes the centrality of language, articulation, the passing of breath as an essential requirement of language production, and the correlation between the tradition which identifies ten utterances with which God created the world, and these ten utterances at the foundation of the creation of the Jewish people in relation with God.

The ambiguities of the experience at Sinai continue in the narrative itself. Look at the opening verses of revelation:

Moshe descended towards the nation….and he said to them…..
God then said all of these words…..’I am the Lord your God….”
(Exodus 19:25-20:1)

Note that verse 19:25 is elliptical; it never tells the reader what Moshe said. If one then reads these two verses consecutively, it may even appear as if Moses himself transmitted all of the utterances of God. In other words, “Moses descended from the mountain to the people and then said the following: ‘God spoke the following words to you….’” Interestingly, this is precisely the reading which the famous teaching of the chain of transmission in Pirqe Abot 1:1 suggests: Moses received Torah at Sinai and he transmitted it to Joshua….

The syntactic ambiguities in the text, the absence of overt references to the auditory dimension of revelation, the conflation of the senses, and the diverse rabbinic and mystical traditions which reflect a range of varying opinions regarding the actual content of the revelatory experience all point to the centrality of language and interpretation. Whatever its content, the only significance of an encounter with the divine is mediated through language. Put another way, there is no such thing as meaning independent of a process of interpretation as articulated in language. Ultimately, reality—or the closest we human beings can come to understanding reality— is hermeneutic and dialogic. Language signifies the importance of an event precisely because it also contains the tools necessary for us to interpret it.

In light of this idea, I would like to return to the earlier allusion to the connection between the utterances of revelation and the utterances of creation. We find this connection in the first chapter of the Pesiqta Rabbati: The ten utterances at Mt. Sinai emerged corresponding to the ten utterances through which the world was created. The midrashic text then proceeds to enumerate the utterances of creation, making certain to account for each one (One: “and God created the light….” etc.) In this sense, revelation was an inchoate, raw experience, as undifferentiated as the chaos prior to creation—prior to ordering and sequencing and fixing boundaries between phenomena so that the separate identities of each phenomenon could emerge.

Maimonides seems to shape this view most vividly. According to Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed, part 2, chapter 33, our ancestors heard nothing at Sinai. That is to say, they heard no words, no language, nothing discernable or comprehensible. Only Moses was privileged and able to translate their experience into words, to lend it shape and structure, to highlight the deep grammar of that primal moment so that the people could create some distance from it and begin to make some sense of it altogether. Maimonides wrote:

It seems to me that at the revelation at Sinai, everything that Moses experienced the people did not experience in the same way. Rather, each utterance came only to Moses. That is why the wording of each utterance is in the singular, emphasizing this lone recipient. Such that after each utterance, Moses descended to the bottom of the mountain and recounted to the people what he had just heard from God directly….The implication of this is that only Moses received the utterance, whereas the people received only the inchoate power of the divine voice undifferentiated into words. That is what the Torah means in Deuteronomy 5:20 when the text there reads, “…when you heard ‘the’ voice….”and, “you hear only voice, but see no images….” (Deuteronomy 4:12); the Torah never says that they actually heard words! Only Moses actually heard words, and it was Moses therefore who transmitted those words to the people. (In other words, Moses effected the translation of the voice into words. He converted sounds into structured phonemes that the nation could then interpret and comprehend.)

Accordingly, then, it is possible that our ancestors experienced God at Sinai as speechlessness, as a voicing of potential articulation, as sound containing the potential for meanings which would emerge only after a process of articulation, interpretation and distance. In effect, nothing exists—not our history, nor our identity, or the features of our lives which contain meaning for us—independent of this process of articulation and interpretation. If the world were a text, then life is essentially hermeneutic. For the Rambam, at our encounter at Sinai, God gave us raw sound, from which we could quarry thoughts, words, ideas, and then—actions, lending those ideas a life and vitality all of their own.

Up until now, this analysis has emphasized the language of “utterance,” “voice,” and “sound.” There is another language, however, which accompanies the experience of revelation at Sinai; the language of mitzvah, of “commandment,” but not in the sense of the “Ten Commandments.” Indeed, that phrase is better translated as ten “utterances,” as I have presented here all along. But in the middle of this narrative, Exodus 19:7 does state: Let them place before them all of these words which God has commanded them. If the people heard only raw sound, felt only the power of God’s voice, but received an articulation of that voicing from Moses, then, why the form of commandment? Why not a narrative? A poem? A song? A story? Why does the language of commandment, of expectation, of norms, become the preferred form for converting God’s will to the people?

Perhaps this question is answered by noting that the parasha does not open with the narrative of revelation. Instead, the rabbis opened the parasha with Chapter 18—the narrative of the encounter not between God, Moses, and the people, but between Yitro, Moses’ father-in-law, and Moses and the people. Yitro—the high priest of Midian, a non-Israelite religious and political leader, and the father of Moses’ wife Tzippora, introduces the entire revelation narrative!

Yitro comes, re-uniting Moses with his family, and witnesses an administrative disaster unfolding before his experienced eyes. All day long Moses sits in judgment hearing lawsuits without differentiating their relative importance. When he asks his son-in-law what he is doing, the Torah presents the verse which perhaps connects the story of Yitro to the narrative of Mt. Sinai more than any other. Moses turns towards Yitro and explains: The nation comes to me in order to lidrosh elohim. (Exodus 18:15). That phrase at the end of this short verse contains a powerful set of double meanings. The simple meaning of course, is, the people come to inquire of the judges, or to seek judgment.the people come to interpret God, or I might suggest without too much of a linguistic leap: the people come to interpret the meanings of God’s pronouncements. When people seek God, the text uses the word, derisha. When God seeks people, the words are dibbur and mitzvah. I am suggesting that the word lidrosh, meaning “seek,” “inquire,” “search for” (compare the usage regarding Rivka during her difficult pregnancy in Genesis 25:22 as a “God-seeker”) here also means, “to receive directives or commandments from.” In this spirit, then, I would like to present the longest definition of the word mitzvah, which might be something like this: “I am conveying a norm for behavior through which you can mark the importance of a particular experience. Do not overlook the meanings implicit in this moment; but do this action in response to this moment, and you will have the opportunity to interpret the moment and fill it with meanings.” This may be why the rabbis declared in the Talmud: Greater is the one who performs an action as a mitzvah than one who performs the same action but without regarding it as a mitzvah."  This would be true in the context of comparing creation and revelation: doing a mitzvah means turning a moment into an opportunity for a meaningful act, just as Moses converted divine sound into linguistic articulations, into words. As his disciples, receiving Torah at Sinai has enabled us to continue this heritage in Moses’ stead. From God’s perspective, the reason to do mitzvoth is to fill our lives with meaning, which is the most human and sacred commitment we can make. Yet, the words also say:

Shabbat Shalom.

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