February 23, 2020

Giving Voice: Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)

Someone came to me in tears. “Too much yelling,” he said. “My boyfriend yells at me, my boss yells at me, even my father still yells at me.” 

We talked about how yelling doesn’t achieve what the yellers want to achieve. We talked about the knot he gets in his stomach when the yelling starts, his initial inclination to give in, and how later his impulse is to shut down — not do what the yellers want, not respond at all. 

Is yelling cultural? Instinctual? Does the impulse (or permission) to shout come in part from this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, in which the Israelites receive the dramatic verbal delivery of the Ten Commandments?

“On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for God had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder” (Exodus 19:16-19).

After the commandments were delivered, “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain all in smoke; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. ‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die’ ” (Exodus 20:15-16).

I confess I do love the drama of this scene, and the image of the multitudes trembling there together at the mountain. One of the many midrashim (legends not in Torah) about this scene tells us that the multitude gathered there at the foot of the mountain includes all Jews who ever lived, those alive then, and not yet alive, Jews by birth and Jews by Choice. A sweet Jewish tradition comes from that midrash: If you ever meet someone who looks familiar, but you can’t remember where you’ve met, Jews will often say, “We must have met at Sinai.”

But reading again this frightening scene, and thinking about my friend who has been yelled at too many times, I begin to wonder — if it were up to me, is this the scene I would want all Jews everywhere through all time to witness? And then I remember I am not alone — commentaries and midrash collections on this passage of Torah long for quieter ways to understand what is happening.

Menachem Mendel of Rymanov, for example, imagines the scene quite differently by reflecting on the sound of the Hebrew letter alef, the first letter of the first word God speaks here. Alef is a silent letter, so perhaps the Israelites “heard” only the first letter of the first word, and all the rest was understood (“Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary,” p. 441).

And why is “your” singular when God says, “Anochi Adonai eloheikah” — “I am Adonai your God” — even though thousands of Israelites are gathered at the foot of the mountain? Perhaps God is speaking quietly, whispering into the ear of each one of us, not shouting from the mountain for all to hear. Indeed, the common translation reads, “God answered Moses in thunder” (Genesis 19:19), but the Hebrew reads “v’ha-elohim ya-ah-neh-nu v’kol,” which can also be translated as, “God answered him in a voice.” Maybe it was a quiet voice — a whisper, not a yell, not a roar, not a thunderclap. And perhaps in the gentleness of God’s whisper — God’s silence, even — we know, we intuit what God wants of us, the gentleness of the delivery leaving us eager to comply.

Could it be that even in the midst of hundreds of thousands, each of us is developing our own relationship with God? That is suggested in the blessing found in Talmud (Brachot 53b) to be said upon seeing a gathering of 600,000 or more Jews (the number of men said to be standing at Mount Sinai, Exodus 12:37): “Blessed are You, knower of secrets” (hacham harazim).

There is yet another midrash that says if all the earth were quiet for just a moment, we could all hear the voice of God still echoing from Mount Sinai, speaking the words of the Ten Commandments.

If that moment happened right now, how would you hear those words, do you suppose? As a violent, demanding thunderclap, or as the voice of a lover, or parent, or friend — knower of your secrets, of your heart — whispering gently in your ear?

Lisa Edwards is rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (bcc-la.org), a Reform synagogue in West Los Angeles.