Weekly Parsha: Yitro
One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist
It came to pass on the third day when it was morning, that there were thunder claps and lightning flashes, and a thick cloud was upon the mountain, and a very powerful blast of a shofar, and the entire nation that was in the camp shuddered. –Exodus 19:16
Author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith”
A few years ago, I heard about a renowned Torah scholar who suffered from chronic pain. Before taking his pain pills, he would pause, look at them in his hand, sometimes even trembling, lest he begin to credit the pill alone, and not God, for any potential relief. This made a powerful impression on me: This man felt enough awe for God’s presence in his life to literally tremble at the idea of losing that connection.
Ever since hearing that story, I also stop for a moment before I pop one of my migraine pills, and tell God — out loud — that I know he is the only true healer, and the pill merely a conduit.
At the revelation at Mount Sinai, we were overwhelmed — quite literally — by God’s spectacular special effects, as we were lifted from rootlessness and slavery into a nation, his chosen people. There was no mistaking God’s omnipresence in our lives during the times of open and frequent miracles. At Mount Sinai, the cloud overhead contained God’s palpable essence.
Today, we often have a metaphorical cloud that obscures his presence. Our lives are so distracted and frazzled, we need more focused intention to connect to God’s presence, love and care. But it’s still with us, as much as we allow it to be. We need to find our own ways to break through that obscuring cloud and see him in the smaller, everyday miracles he provides — including pain relief in a miniscule pill.
This was the greatest moment in human history. More than 2 million people personally heard God’s words at Mount Sinai, and the event has been recounted countless times by Jews, Christians and Muslims around the world.
Rav Huna said that everyone present heard five voices. The first two are derived from the plural voices, “kolot,” used for the thunderclaps. Another kol is the continual shofar blast. Three verses later, yet another kol refers to a second shofar, and the final kol is God’s direct voice. (Berachot 6b, B. Talmud)
We thus have two kinds of natural phenomena (the thunder), two kinds of spiritual phenomena (the shofars), and God’s overpowering voice. I say overpowering because after a few words, the people begged Moses to take dictation for them, fearing their souls would fly from their bodies if they heard another word from the Almighty. And that is why so few humans have ever attained prophecy. It is possible, however, for any of us to hear the other four voices if we learn how to listen.
I believe the two voices of thunder correspond to the revealed and hidden aspects of our physical universe. The incomparable beauties of the mountains, seas, stars and life itself are the Creator’s love songs to his creatures. As we learn more of nature’s secrets via biology, physics and other sciences, we discover even greater love.
The two voices of the shofars correspond to the revealed and hidden aspects of Torah. If we approach these ever-unfolding teachings as God speaking to us now, then we, too, stand at Mount Sinai and witness an ongoing revelation that is 3,300 years young.
Rabbi Avraham Greenstein
Professor of Hebrew, Academy for Jewish Religion
This verse describes the scene of the giving of the Torah, and it is an aurally and visually busy scene. The increasingly loud sound of the shofar is punctuated by thunder, and an obscuring cloud is lit by intermittent lightning. Clearly, it was an awe-inspiring scene, as the nation of Israel trembled in response.
Rabbi Nathan’s midrashic commentary on Avot asserts that this description is intended to teach us how to approach the study of Torah: Just as the Torah was first received in awe, so it should be studied with awe. Rabbi Matya ben Harash echoes this in Yoma 4b, adding that this is what the Psalmic words “and you shall rejoice in trembling” (2:11) are referring to. Our delight in studying the Torah is heightened through the recognition that the Torah and its giver are awesome and essentially beyond our ken. We should feel an awed sense of privilege in studying Torah.
The Malbim comments on the two types of sound that could be heard. He asserts that the shofar blast, which was constant and ever-growing, corresponds to the teachings of Torah that proceed from awe and that are taught for the sake of heaven. These teachings have lasting power and influence, whereas the teachings that proceed from self-aggrandizement or from an exploitation of the Torah have only temporary influence, even if they are momentarily impressive like thunder. Our goal in studying Torah should be to find the light rather than to obscure it.
Arevot Women’s Beit Midrash, Sephardic Educational Center
As a new teacher, I relied heavily on visual aids and props to hold students’ attention. Over time, I realized these were distracting, taking the focus off the learning material at hand. Similarly, during the giving of the Torah, the people were engaged with the sounds and sights of the event instead of listening and internalizing what was being said.
In this verse, the Israelites were startled by loud thunder and flashes of lightning at Mount Sinai, with the whole mountain smoking and shaking violently. This scene actually reflects the people’s inner state, trembling with fear while the noise of the blaring horn grows louder and louder. Despite preparing for this moment of revelation, the experience was so overwhelming the people appealed to Moses to intercede “lest they die.”
The Kotzker Rebbe implies this focus on externals is what enabled the sin of the golden calf to take place so soon after receiving the Torah. One can see, one can even tremble (or properly shuckle, ritually swaying during prayer) yet still remain disconnected and afar. In a similar manner, the Israelites remained standing distantly while revelation passed them by.
In the Talmud, Rav Sheshet, who was blind, could tell when the king was approaching by the sound or lack thereof of the rooting crowd. As we learn from God’s revelation to Elijah on Mount Horeb, the Lord was not in the wind, earthquake and or even fire, but rather in the still small voice.
Rabbi Chanan (Antony) Gordon
Ask any American Jew, “Who did God did give the Torah to at Mount Sinai?” and almost all will respond that God gave the Torah to Moses. This response may be because of Cecil B. DeMille’s classic film “The Ten Commandments” and its depiction of Moses receiving the tablets on Mount Sinai. The image ingrained in American-Jewish consciousness by DeMille is beautiful, but DeMille should have read the original script!
The Torah’s version is quite different. The operative words in our verse state that it was “the entire nation that was in the camp.” Some 2 to 3 million people experienced a national revelation when HaShem gave us his Torah.
The Jewish people are the only nation in the history of mankind to experience such a communal revelation. Other major religions of the world accept this event as true, and hold it as a key component of their traditions.
The fact that most American Jews are not aware of these facts is proof that the reason we lose thousands of Jews every year to assimilation isn’t because they suddenly have a profound appreciation of another religion, but rather that they sadly lack an appreciation of their own religion!