When it comes to miracles, Judaism teaches that the paradigm of all miracles is the crossing of the sea. God comes through at just the right time to save Israel and to destroy their enemy. But, when it comes to God putting on a great show, there is nothing that can compare with the giving of the Law at Sinai.
On the day the Torah is given, the mountain is covered with smoke, there is lighting and thunder shaking the ground. The shofar is sounded and the people are in awe about what they are about to see. When the moment comes, God descends upon the mountain, the entire world goes silent and every person present hears the voice of God. It is an awesome moment, it is a terrifying moment and it is a moment in time that everyone present will never forget. The voice of God gets the entire Hollywood sound and light show treatment on an immense scale. It is all very impressive.
If you read the account of the giving of the Law yesterday, or took a peek at it today, you would find the account in Exodus Chapters 19 and 20 as a bit confusing. We would really like to know exactly what happened at Sinai but the Torah is vague and sketchy in some places. It is as if there were reporters present who were trying to explain exactly what transpired that day so long ago but either they were so caught up in the moment or the words failed them in trying to record what they experienced. What God said is clear, how it all came to pass is tangled up in an account by people who just didn’t have the language skills to adequately describe it.
An example can be found in the verse right after the Law is given in Chapter 20. The very next verse teaches: “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning …” Something is wrong with this sentence. How do you witness thunder? The text actually says, “All the people SAW the thunder…” How do you SEE thunder? You can hear thunder and you can feel thunder but how do you see it? Just what is the author of this line trying to tell us?
A week or so ago, I told the story of a group of Hasidim who were so moved by the music of prayer that they began to dance in the middle of their service. A deaf man passing outside looked in the window and saw the movement but could not hear the music. In his mind, they were all insane. And yet, unless the deaf man had never experienced music, the reality is that quickly he would assume that there is music playing and the Hasidim are not crazy, just inspired to dance by the music that must be present.
This is the way we categorize everything we experience in the world. At first glance, everything is amazing. But after a while, we begin to understand better how a particular event came to be. That is why the translator uses the word “witness” rather than the word “saw”. It is easier for us to understand that witnessing can be done with all our senses. Using the word “witness” helps us to understand it better.
And yet … perhaps we have changed the meaning of the word too quickly. Rabbi Michael Strassfield teaches that there may be a deeper meaning to this verse in Shemot. Rabbi Strassfield writes: “We are all hard of hearing when it comes to the voice of God at Sinai. The key to being able to hear it is to realize that the music is playing – that is, that God calls out to us every day. With that awareness, when we look at the world we can see the “effects” of that voice – in nature, in acts of lovingkindness. At those times, at least, we remember we should strive to hear the voice. The first step, then. Is to “see the sounds” – that is, to see the effect of God’s voice and to remember its existence long before we can actually hear it. This is the beginning of the road to Sinai.”
Rabbi Strassfield is teaching us that we can find God in the highly personal way in which we experience the world. Each of us has our own experience of what life can be and we need to use all of our senses to “see” the hand of God in it all. We can find God in the sound of a baby crying and in the lullaby that a parent sings. We can find God as we taste new foods or even familiar foods prepared in new ways; this too is a way to experience God.
According to science, we experience the world with all of our senses but in the end, what we make of the world depends on how our mind interprets the signals that we receive. An example is that we are able to see the world clearly even though there is the big fleshy thing right in the middle of our face. If we close one eye, we see right away how much of our field of vision is blocked by our nose. Our brain does not believe that seeing our nose is very helpful so even though it is always there, our brain filters out the part of our world that is blocked by our nose. Only when we close one eye can we see how much of the world, blocked by our noses, has been filtered out by our brain.
Our tradition teaches us that the voice of Sinai goes out every day, calling us to hear how we can best serve God in this world. Every day a voice comes forth from Sinai calling to hear what our ancestors heard, the call from on high, encouraging us to reach higher, to reach out to each other and to reach inside our souls to bring meaning to all that we do. Shavuot is not about recalling our past, it is instead about reaffirming our commitment to what we hear. It is our yearly reminder that God is calling us.
And yet, we tune out that voice. We choose what we want to see, we choose what we want to hear. We tune out the call of God. We are too busy, we have too much going on, there is so much resting on our shoulders that we just don’t have time anymore to hear the voice of Sinai calling us. The voice calls to us through all our senses, we can feel the pull of Sinai, we can taste the sweetness of its sound. We can clearly see what God is telling us to do. Yes there are a thousand and one excuses why we must refuse the call, and only one reason to respond to the call of Torah. It is God who calls us, it is our Creator who is demanding that we live up to our potential.
Does all of this sound familiar? Have we not heard these words before? Not by the Rabbi although Rabbis have been preaching these words for hundreds of years. No this is not some history lesson, it is more personal. This call that we witness is just a different form of a different call. Remember when we were all teenagers? I know it usually is a painful time that we often choose to forget. But think back to that period in life. We heard a different call in those years. It was a call of parents reminding us to do the right thing even if our friends called us off our path. We wanted so much to fit in with our “crowd” that we tuned out the call of our parents’ love in exchange for a chance to be part of something different.
We eventually understood what our parents, mentors and teachers were trying to say to us. No matter how far we strayed from those who loved us, we could feel their love, we could see their love, we could taste that love and we never really stopped hearing its call. No matter how long we tried to tune it out, we could always see their love and witness its effect in our lives. Now that our parents are gone, now that death has finally removed all breath from their body, we can still hear their voice. It is just as loud and just as loving as it continues to echo in our hearts. We can still see, taste, and hear their love, calling it up whenever we need to hear and feel again the love that never stopped flowing from their hearts. So even if a heart stops beating, the love continues to flow.
Now we can understand how it is possible to see the thunder of Sinai. The event our ancestors witnessed so long ago, the event they tried so hard to record so we could understand, the event that changed their lives and that changed the course of Western Civilization, that call still goes out from Sinai. That is the call of love that has been transmitted through the generations to our grandparents, to our parents and through to us. We hear it as clearly as our ancestors heard it. We see the thunder in way Jews have lived their lives through the good days and bad, through sunshine and darkness. Always we have been true to our call. Israel is once again our State and our place in the world. Others may try and bend Israel to their understanding of what a nation is all about, but we hear a different call, we hear the call of Sinai. We hear the love of God reaching out to us to make our lives different, to guide all of life to become something more.
So we have reached another Yizkor service. We have reached the time when we remember those whose love we shared and who now are gone from this life. It is not their death that is the focus of this hour. Nor is it the empty seat at our table that we mourn. Yizkor is our celebration of the love that never ends. The love of a parent and grandparent. The love of our people for what is important in life and the love from God that calls to us each and every day from Sinai since that moment thousands of years ago. Could we do a better job in writing down what we experience? Will we be able to get the words right? I really don’t know. But as long as we get the love right in our heart, we will understand without explanation, how it is possible to “See the thunder.”
As we again hear the sounds of love from generations past in our Yizkor prayers, let us also hear the loving call of God as it calls us to faith, gratitude and prayer. Let us rise for the prayers of Yizkor…
Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Thursday, June 1, 2017.