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Parshat Yitro 5782      January 22, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

     I hope each person has read this week’s Parsha closely. It is an experience of God that is being reported in Chapters 19 and 20. If we are to understand God for ourselves, we need to understand what the Torah is teaching us about God in these chapters. The great revelation at Sinai was the most formative moment in the history of our people. At least, the words we read today can indicate to us how our ancestors understood the revelation of God that happened in front of their eyes.

     If we read the English closely, or even if we read the Hebrew closely, we will come away from this text disappointed. The descriptions of God and the events at Sinai are described in great detail and yet they are frustratingly hard to understand. We know exactly what words God said but how it was said and what our people saw when God spoke are most difficult to understand. We have to remember, that our God and the God of our ancestors is a God that is hidden from us; God is beyond our understanding. We can only grasp the most basic qualities of God while the rest defies description. What we have in Parshat Yitro is at best a poetic account of what our ancestors experienced that day at the foot of Mt. Sinai, They picked the best words they knew to describe what was indescribable. We can pick any passage in the Torah or in the Bible that tries to describe an encounter with God, and we will find the exact same problem. The people run out of words when trying to comprehend an experience of God. Three of my favorite modern commentators tried this week to focus some of the various aspects of the divine so I want to share today some of the issues that these scholars raise.

     The first enigma our ancestors faced is a problem that we continue to face today; God is outside the bounds of time. We experience God in special moments in our life. God, on the other hand, experiences all of us and all of our life all at the same time. Time does not apply to God. But we are very much bound by our temporal world. Ilana Kurshan who writes for the Fuchsberg Center in Jerusalem has this teaching about God and time:

      For the rabbis, God’s unique temporal capabilities attest to God’s intimate connection with humanity. God can hear the prayers and cries of all human beings simultaneously, regardless of where they are called out and why, … Furthermore, God can respond to all prayers instantaneously,  ..God can transcend time, but God is also closely in touch with mortal human beings who exist very much in time…as Mark Twain is credited as saying, “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” So much of the meaning in our lives is a product of our temporality. Our emotions are powerful because they are distinct from one another; if we always felt the same way, a wedding would not be a height of joy, nor would the loss of a loved one be an occasion for acute sadness. Likewise, if we always knew everything we’d ever know, we’d miss out on the pleasure of learning and discovery. Since we exist in time, the periods of our lives are distinct from one another: Shabbat feels different from the rest of the week, youth feels different from maturity, and a graduation is a moment of poignancy because it signifies the end of a stage of life that will never recur and the beginning of a future that is still uncertain. Unlike God, who is depicted in the midrash as sitting atop a sundial …we human beings experience time casting its long shadow on our lives, and illuminating us with its radiance.”

     One of the ways we are human is how we experience time. What makes God, God, is how God experiences time. We see the revelation at Sinai as a one-time event that happened thousands of years ago, but to God, the revelation at Sinai is ongoing. It is happening all the time. The Torah insists that not only were our ancestors there at the mountain, but all Jews from every time both before and after were also present. We might ask, “How could all of that happen?” But we learn that when God is not bound by time or space, many things that we see as impossible, become possible.

     When we realize that this event is more than just a moment in time another question then arises: If God is so beyond us and beyond our understanding of the world, why did God give this revelation? When time and space no longer apply, why do human beings then matter to God at all? We live in a vast universe, and we are only a small speck on an ordinary planet circling a non-descript sun at the edge of a huge galaxy that is only one of millions of galaxies in the universe. What brings God to one mountain, literally in the middle of nowhere, to bring the Torah to our people?

     I have to admit that it is hard, extremely hard, maybe impossible, to get inside the head/mind/consciousness of God. We are not assured that God even has a head/mind or is conscious. We can only examine God’s actions and try to understand why God does what God does. Looking at the Text of Chapter 19, we see that the People of Israel are brought by Moses to the foot of Mt. Sinai. The Hebrew here seems a bit strange. While the English reads “the foot of the mountain” the Hebrew talks about being “under the mountain” which we take to mean the base of Mt. Sinai. But the Rabbis are curious about what it might mean if the text really means that our people were “under” the mountain. Why would God want our people there? Here I turn to my friend Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein who writes for the Times of Israel with his take on the giving of the Torah:

     “In what is most likely the earliest extant version of this interpretation, God lifts up Mount Sinai and places it over the children of Israel as protection from any danger which might have been a byproduct of this auspicious and spectacular sacred event. The verses used as proof verses are from Song of Songs and are intended to reflect God’s love for His people.

     Thunder, lightning, quaking, shaking, these all describe what was happening on the mountain. It is a dangerous place for people to be standing. When we think about the devastation on the Island of Tonga after a volcanic eruption and tsunami, we no longer wonder that God might be concerned about the physical safety of the people that God is trying to teach. God lifts up the mountain to form a protective roof over the people to shelter them from falling rocks and other assorted dangers. Why would God do this? On the one hand what is the point of teaching Torah to people who are in danger of dying? They will be “rather” distracted by everything that is happening around them. And we could ask why God needed the sound and light show at all if it was so dangerous for the people? God wanted to impress the people but did not want to hurt them. So, the mountain itself became their shield and shelter. Why? It was an indication that God loves us.

     Think of the times when we moved to shelter our children from things that were dangerous. A simple car seat is a protection from many of the dangers of driving. The back seat is safer than the front seat in an accident. For smaller children, facing the rear of the car is safer than a front facing seat. We do all of this because we love our children and want them to be safe. If we see the mountain as a protection for the people, God does this because God loves the people. The people feel safe with God and the pyrotechnics are there to impress the people about what is to come. The answer to why God takes note of us is because God cares. It is the sign of God’s love.

     Another sign of God’s love is the commandments themselves. The late Rabbi Sydney Greenberg of Philadelphia once observed that instructing a child in all the rules of society is one way that a parent shows love for his or her child. A parent that says to a child, “do whatever you want” does not love that child. That parent is abdicating all responsibility for raising a child. A loving parent tells a child that “I love you very much and so I will teach you what you need to know even if the lesson is difficult.” It will be many years until a child understands how much love it takes to teach them the hard lessons of life. So, it is with God. God gives us the Torah to teach us the best way we can live our lives. It takes sometimes a long time until we fully understand the meaning of the Mitzvot and the full extent of the effect they can have on the way we live our lives. Only then do we see how these Mitzvot are the sign of God’s love.

     Why does God love us? God is our cosmic parent. God loves all the universe that God created. A God beyond space and time is a God that can love all of creation at every moment. It is wise for us to consider this as we learn Torah and how we can live by its rules.

     This brings us to a third lesson from the revelation of the Torah. How is it that a God that is beyond time and space can appear in a world that is bound by time and space? God may live in every moment, but we live in just one moment, this one. How does God who is beyond time be in this time? How can God who is beyond space be in this space? It is hard to answer this question because we are talking about a God that is beyond the rules of physics entering into a realm where physics applies. We only know this physical world. Trying to understand how God who is beyond all of this becomes a part of all of this may actually stretch us beyond what we are capable of knowing.

    The Torah indicates that when God appeared the people were so afraid that they ran away. In effect they said to Moses, “You go and talk to God and tell us what God says, we will wait way back here where we will be safe.” The midrash says that each person heard the word of God in a voice that they could recognize. I can see how hearing such voices can be frightening. So how does God, without any physical properties, give voice to the teachings of Torah?

     I have the privilege of studying lessons from Rabbi Dr. Erin Leib Smokler from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York City. The lessons are posted each week and in them she interprets the lessons of Rabbi Yehuda Lieb Alter of the city of Ger in Eastern Europe. The “Gerer Rebbe” was also known as the “Sefat Emet” the “Language of Truth” after the title of the extraordinary Torah commentary he wrote at the end of the 19th century. Dr. Smokler brings the spirituality of the Sefat Emet int o the 21st century. This is how she understands how God speaks and reveals the Divine Self to humanity: She writes, “The self-disclosure of God was not about a God “out there.” It was an occasion for every single person to realize the unique ways that the Divine is present within themselves as an animating life-force. Divine energy pulsates inside of each one of us. This is the “nekudah,” the point of holiness, that the Sefat Emet references time and again. Sinai was the occasion when this truth became palpably real. It was also an occasion to appreciate that God is similarly present in everyone else. The revelation of one’s own holiness yielded a deep recognition of the holiness of all others as well. Individual uniqueness meant radical equality.

     We realize that when we “hear” the voice of God, it is something that does not come to us through our ears, but through our very bodies. God is not out there in the physical world at all, but God is a force that animates us and pulsates within us as long as we are alive. We can talk about feelings in our hearts and something that moves our souls, but God is the very essence of our life itself. When we have those moments where suddenly we realize something we never knew before and how important it is in our lives, when that “light bulb” goes off in our minds and suddenly what was opaque becomes clear, this is how the Sefat Emet describes the point of holiness inside us. We may craft all kinds of ideas. Some may help us do our jobs better, some ideas may make us better parents or spouses, some ideas may be hurtful to others, some ideas may be plans to do terrible things to other people. But the “nekudah” the point of holiness inside us, this is the source of what unites us as human beings. It is not just one of our ideas, it is the realization that we are part of a people, part of a humanity, part of a universe and this point of holiness calls us to be aware of our connection and to make that connection part of the way we understand our lives.

     What we do not only affects our life and the lives of those who are around us, but all of our actions have cosmic meaning. When we are mean, nasty, hurtful, and cruel, we tear the fabric that binds us together, shredding it into pieces. But when we are kind, supportive, nurturing, and compassionate, we repair all the tears and make the connections between us stronger.

     Rabbi Lawrence Kushner describes this like trying to put together the jigsaw puzzle of our life. We are given the pieces and we are to put them into their place so we can be complete in how we live our lives. But Kushner warns that some of the pieces we are trying to fit into place are not really pieces of our own puzzle. We are given pieces of puzzles that belong to other people. Those pieces are worthless to us but critical for someone else. When we meet that person and present them with the idea/information/support they need to complete their puzzle, in that moment, we are messengers of the Divine.

     A God beyond time and space, who cares about humanity and considers us to be a critical piece of the created universe is not a God that is so easily expressed in words. Our ancestors tried as best they could to put down on parchment what they had experienced. They left us these clues to assemble as humanity grows in knowledge and understanding. Voices that are not voices, a mountain that is a throne for God but also a shield for human beings, a presence inside that changes the way we see all that is outside. These are just some of the ways we can understand that which is fully beyond our comprehension. From these we learn the lessons of the physical, the awe-some and the spiritual.

     The more we study these words, the more they can speak to us. May God give us the faith and the understanding to make this Torah our own as we stop to hear and contemplate the voice that still speaks from Sinai.        

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Tue, February 7 2023 16 Shevat 5783