I. Yitro’s Visit As Response:

This week’s reading is a momentous one, it contains the narrative of the revelation at Mt Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, as described in the longer essay below. What is striking is that this week’s reading doesn’t begin with that crucial section, it actually begins with a family visit of Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, and in fact, this central reading is not known in traditional circles as “Sinai” or “Giving of the Torah” but as Perashat Yitro, by the name of an outsider, described as a foreign Priest!

Even if the division of the weekly readings is viewed as accidental, still, why is this the section immediately preceding the central section of the Torah, in fact, some of the medieval commentators argue that the meeting with Yitro actually happened after Sinai. Thus placing Yitro’s visit ahead of the revelation of Sinai is meant to be intentional.

The Tiferet Shelomo sees this meeting with Yitro as a prologue to Sinai, in a Buddhist like teaching. The Tiferet Shelomo explains that we must be like Yitro in the way we approach Torah. Every day, we must approach our Torah study and observance as though this moment is the first time we are hearing Torah; we must eternal present ourself to study as though we were complete outsiders with no preconceptions, in a state of humility and with an open mind. The Tiferet Shelomo supports this approach with a lovely textual proof, a de-contextualized reading of a verse from the story of Joseph and his brothers – The verse reads “The individual who shall be found with the goblet shall become my servant”. In the episode, this is a threat about an assumed stolen bit of silverware, but to the Tiferet Shelomo, the message of the verse is beyond the actual narrative and teaches us that the person who is like an empty container, into which spirituality and Torah can be poured, that individual is the true servant of the Divine. Without achieving self-effacement, an overcoming of the ego, there is no space in the mind, as it were, to see the world in new ways, to dream, to think clearly and envision novel insights. This approach to Torah, of coming to it every time with the excitement of an outsider, is, according to the Tiferet Shelomo, the message of the placement of the Yitro episode before the revelation of Sinai chapter.

However, what drew me to this text was a reading of the opening verse, which narrates how Yitro heard about “all that Gd did for Moshe and the Israelites in taking them out of Egypt” and how he then decides to visit his son-in-law to check it out for himself. The commentator Rashi explains that Yitro had heard about the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, and the war with Amalek. This explanation by Rashi strikes the Netivot Shalom as superfluous; after all, the text itself explains that Yitro was motivated by his hearing about the Exodus, so what exactly is Rashi adding by this comment? The Netivot Shalom offers a reading of Rashi that is worth remembering in these politically charged days. The Netivot Shalom reads Rashi as emphasizing Yitro’s visit as a response to oppression. Yitro was not in doubt, nor surprised by the ability of a deity to redeem the oppressed or alter nature. What stunned him was that even after the redemption of the oppressed and the drowning of Pharoah’s army as though nature itself was opposed to this oppression, there were still people like the Amalekites who were willing to attack newly freed slaves for no apparent reason other than profit or sport. In fact, the Sefat Emet writes that had the Amalekites not obfuscated the redemption with their attack, the whole world would have been moved by the redemption of the enslaved.

If the possibility of human evil and malfeasance is still possible after such a powerful manifestation of goodness and truth, according to the Netivot Shalom, then Yitro decided that intellection and disapproval was an inadequate response to the possibility of human suffering- the only appropriate response was to “be present”, he could not sit in his home and read about it, but he needed to appear, to be there with the people, to act, and demonstrate with his full physical presence that truth will be victorious and that goodness will prevail. The need to “be present” as a response to oppression was true then, and it is equally true now.



II. Perashat Yitro: Seeing the Sounds of Sinai

[Note: This essay was first written several years ago, the morning after a big snowstorm in Jerusalem. Due to the ecstatic and trippynature of the writing, which to me preserves a beautiful moment of an entirely different time (peace seemed just around the corner, for one thing), I can't bring myself to change it, and I hope it is somewhat evocative for the reader. And who knows, with global warming I may never have this experience again...]

Let me tell you of the night I had last night. I travel daily from the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot where I work to Jerusalem where I live. Normally its about an hour each way. Last night, as most of you know, there was a major snowstorm in these parts, and as a result, the highway was closed from Sha’ar HaGai towards Jerusalem. Among the dozens of cars stuck there for several hours was my own. Fortunately I had brought many CDs with me; having heard the weather reports in the morning I brought lots of winter music, Gothic choral music, medieval Scandinavian songs, etc. At about 1 am they let us pass. Having lived in the North bicoastally for most of my life, I pressed on, and soon I realized that I was all alone on the road, having left all the Mediterraneans in the drift. All alone sliding up and down the road leading up and then down from the Kastel, then up the ascent to Jerusalem. Around me swirled the pure white of the tumultuous storm, as I was going at 20 km an hour I could look around, watching the action over the valley, the treetops heavy under their shining burden, the familiar Eastern buildings that line the road from the entrance of the city to Katamon all reflecting the odd light of 2 am in the snow. Once I finally got home I was so exhilarated that I just jumped up and down for a while, said Arvit, and then as I could not sleep just yet went to see if Walter Benjamin had anything to say about snow.

The reason I am sharing all of this is because this week I want to examine some texts that deal with the ineffable, how the text presents moments that are outside or beyond language. This week’s perasha deals with the revelation and giving of the law at Sinai. The accompanying spectacle of sounds and lights are described twice, once before the commandments and once again just after. In the second narration, in verse 20:15, we are told that “all the people saw the sounds, the flames, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mount”, and they were afraid. Moshe tells the people not to fear, Gd’s intention was l’nasot, to test or alternately to elevate the people; the people stayed back but “Moshe stepped into the fog where there was Gd”.

Being one of that generation that was raised on Peter Max graphics, to whom the psychedelia of “Yellow Submarine” was part of childhood, as one who stands before Kandinskys and Klees not admiring the artwork but wishing to be enveloped in the colors, I would like to ponder a bit about what it means to ‘see the sounds’ and why one ought step into the fog to there find Gd.

Let us begin with the march into the darkness. Rabbeinu Bachye notes the redundancies here, in both the description of the scene and the use of the term rachok, far. He explains that this second presentation is meant to describe not the light show but the “consciousness” involved. To Moshe all was clear and direct, but to the unprepared people these were so many obstacles to prophetic understanding, misinterpreted as “flames”, “smoke” and “fog’; Rabbeinu Bachye explains that these fogs were really the clearest brightest light, but to those who cannot yet withstand this, it appears as darkness (refer back to our shiur on Perashat Bo regarding the blinding darkness).

This approach, of reading this account as cognitive and metaphysical rather than as physically descriptive, is the ground of the commentaries we will now cite. The Ramhal has an elaborate (I want to say Baroque, but as he wrote in the early 1700s in Italy that would be tautological) construct built around these verses. The critical hermeneutic is of the word “nasot”, which I mentioned before. Rashi reads it from the verb for to elevate, to sublate, but the Ramhal chooses the other homophone, the root “to test”. At this critical formation moment, Gd displays the whole host of the Sitra Ahra, the “other” side, that which (as he explains in Daat Tevunot) lends phenomena the appearance of being “evil”, to enable the appearance of free will and choice. These obstacles, the flames, smokescreens and fogs, images of the effect of evil, are as nought, only an illusion, and after recognising the meaning of this encounter we ought not sin, as verse 17 continues.

It is telling how Hassidic thought follows this approach structurally but turns it on its head somewhat. The Degel quotes the Baal Shem Tov as having taught a parable that explained this passage. He tells of a great musician who could make those people dance; I mean the joint was hopping (he says they were dancing the roof off). A deaf person who couldn’t hear the music saw all that swinging going on and simply thought he had passed a madhouse. So too, at Sinai, in reality these flames, etc, were really terms to inadequately represent the holiness of the angels and righteous souls and all that was truly joyous and transcendent in this universe, meant to reflect not just the “symbolic” (ie the syntactical “meaning”) content of the actual commandments, but the “semiotic” non-textual aspects of joy and transcendence encoded in the encounter, by which Gd wishes to elevate the people (nasot, read in the alternative verb form as in Rashi) . The Degel adds, in fact, that some people were sidetracked by this revelation, and saw only this aspect, hence the “distance”, again, a cognitive distance, that Moshe needs to overcome with the people. In summary, the Degel Mahane Ephraim quotes the Baal Shem Tov as teaching that the people needed to “see” the vibrant transformation of their lives inherent in the “voice” they were hearing at Sinai.

With this approach, of readings transforming a text that sounds like a detailing of a peculiar synesthetic experience into a cognitive experience, we come to Likutei Moharan I, section 115. Rav Nachman states that when a person begins to make progress in his/her relation with Gd, this arouses all the inhibitions that the person has towards its actualisation. These inhibitors are really both from within and from without, in that they are from the “sitra ahra” (existential evil, from without) which is also the “yetser hara” (inner conflict), are what is signified by “fog” and “flame”. Most people, when presented with the challenge of personal inhibition, “back off”, stand “rachok”, far back. But those ‘Moshe’s, those with a more transcendent resolve, step forward directly into this spiritual challenge, and there, in the heart of this challenge, find Gd. In a sense, Rav Nachman has here that idea which is most appealing to many people in Buddhist thought, particularly in its Tibetan incarnation. In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the case is made that at death, all souls pass through a test, to see if they have truly internalised the liberating concept, central to Buddhist faith, that all existence is naught but illusion, illusions which lead to desire and thus to suffering. The newly departed soul is presented with terrifying images, of multi-limbed monsters gnashing on skulls, etc, and if the adherent is frightened by these images, he or she must be repeatedly reborn into the world of illusion and sorrow until they so internalize the message of liberation that they are still and unmoved when presented with these images. But the secret is that all of these monsters are actually nothing but the projections of each individual soul, they are his inhibitions and faults made visible- as the refrain in the later chapters goes: ‘Fear that not. Be not awed. Know it to be the embodiment of thine own intellect’. Here, in Likutei Moharan, there is repeated insistence upon the reality of suffering, which paradoxically (paradoxically from the perspective of theological discourse, but not surprising to all seekers of transcendence who know the truth of this first hand) appears just at the time of the most dramatic spiritual growth (the true meaning of Sinai), it is real and cannot be shrugged off, rather it must be confronted and transformed, for deep within that personal obstacle is the deepest truest essence of personal spirituality, which must be understood and rechannelled, for within that lies Gd, as it were. In other words, the response to the personal hurdle of spiritual fog is not only not to sidestep it, but the result of encounter that challenge to clarity may in fact be the transforming moment of spiritual and psychological transformation!

Turning to the earlier textual oddity, we find the idea of ‘seeing the sounds’. While many of the medieval commentators attempt to rationalize this phrase, giving the word ‘seeing’ a cognitive rather than visual meaning, or retranslating ‘sounds’ as referring to the thunder and lightning, etc, Rashi chooses the literal translation, implying a synesthetic experience, that the people experienced the aberrant sensation of actually seeing what is normally heard (and this before MTV). The Sefat Emet (in year 1901) radicalizes this verse further by noting that the verse is in the present tense, ‘the people are seeing the sounds’, implying that this is a potentially ongoing process. The Sefat Emet explains that the human soul, in its truest, unfettered state (unfettered by false desires in its relation with the physical) is beyond the limitations of particularized sense organs, and thus has an experience with the truest reality beyond the appearances of our physical sensory limitations. This was the point of the encounter with the divine at Sinai, almost more of an encounter with the self’s possibility than of an encounter with Gd. At Sinai, we were given to experience the capacity of the soul to transcend the everyday state of affairs, and this ability is still implicit in every individual to this very moment, in the act of Torah study, seen as the equivalent encounter with the divine as was the historical event of Sinai. The Sefat Emet states explicitly that the soul in this state is by definition also beyond time and space, so that this idea is more than metaphorical, an idea we developed fully in the High Holiday shiurim, where we recognized that the ability to transcend time and place explains the possibility of true pardon and forgiveness, concepts that seem as far away from us in today’s political climate.

Actually, in this context the teaching of the Kedushat Levi seems political. There is a Midrash which states that Gd as it were, appears to the people at the splitting of the sea as a young person, while at Sinai Gd was perceived as an old person (there are textual prompts which bring about this reading, not relevant to our discussion now). The obvious sense of this is that a ‘warrior’ is usually seen as young and lithe, whereas a ‘teacher’ would be envisioned with white hair and a stoop. However, the Kedushat Levi sees this differently. The definition of adolescence, he states, is that of uncertainty, still plagued by childlike impulses, whereas the wisdom of age is reflected in a consistency of reflective thought. Settling a problem with force, where the Egyptians needed to be drowned to give a Victory to the Israelites, is an act in the adolescent mode, whereas bringing about Torah, a vehicle for contemplation, social change, spiritual growth, and peacemaking, is an act reflective of peaceful maturity.

As the tone of this piece is more personal, less in the more accepted objective or academic mode (is academic writing yet another meaning of “m’rachok”?), I will tack on the poem I read some time ago, back when I had the honor of being the MC of the Jerusalem Poetry Slam, a unique and beautiful event which ran for five years, till it was cut short, as was all night life in Jerusalem, by the second intifada. Hope you enjoy it, to me at least it resonates with the theme of this shiur:


Who wants to remember those nights? We would
Wander out into the cold twilight, cutting out of class
Into the wheat fields outside the yeshiva to look at
Sky maps. He knew the names of all the constellations
Pointing out the various stars and what their magnitude was.


That physics major I remember later he had pages full
Of operators and equations, sheaves of them. He could
Calculate black holes faster than I could pen a letter,
But in the end he became a writer
And I have to drive an hour each day to the laboratory.


I don’t know anything about novas, I prefer to watch people watching cats
Lying there on the windowsill silently watching our conversation.
No matter what the subject is, it always comes down to who will win and
Why are we on the losing side. The cat stretches again and a door creaks
In the wind, but I like the constellation imagery without the lines drawn in.


These are times in which it would be better to stay at home
Even if it means not being outdoors a lot. I don’t like natural
Colors, I would prefer the colors generated by overload stimuli
All those purples that color aquariums, or the odd yellows of tea.


Anyway, at home, no one ever accuses you of avarice, though
Gd knows there are things I would taste if I ever came across them.
More words, for example, in secret languages that would cause
Listeners to see rhythms and make potted plants bloom synchronously.


Those are angles that have yet to be explored.
Picture an iron silhouette black like a chant vision
Imagine sky maps under delirious purple petals
Syncopate your deity drawing imagination and if you have the time
Laze around picturing the differences between all the faces you have ever known.

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