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Parashat Yitro

January 20, 2011

Addressed To Each of Us Individually

“In the third month, on the first day of the month, on this day (ba-yom ha-zeh) the Israelites arrived at the wilderness of Sinai.” Why “on this day”? To teach you that every day one must regard the Sinaitic revelation as a present reality, that God is addressing you and speaking to you today (Rashi on Exodus 19:1).

“Like the smoke of a kiln.” Only like the smoke of a kiln? An understatement! Rather, this is to teach you that the divine utterance modulates itself to what the ear can hear (Mekhilta on Exodus 19:18). Similarly: “The voice of the Lord is in strength (Psalm 29:4) -adapted to the strength of each individual (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana on Exodus 20:1 - “I am the Lord your God”).

“The people saw the voices” (Exodus 20:15)-how many voices? One tradition says seventy voices, for the Sinaitic utterance emanated in the languages of the seventy nations of humanity. (Midrash Tanhuma). Another tradition says 600,000 voices, for each of the 600,000 Israelites heard it in his or her own way. (Cordovero) Every Jew from that day to the present traces his or her understanding of Torah to one of the 600,000 voices, and all are the words of the living God.

Many years ago, when I heard the summer thunder reverberating through the valleys of the Catskills, I imagined what must have been the experience of the Israelites in the Sinaitic desert some 3300 years ago. It occurred to me that the core idea of Sinai is that the power that orchestrates the forces of nature and the power that commands us to govern our lives by justice and love is the same Power. The voice that speaks through thunder and the voice that speaks through conscience is the same Voice. The Israelites heard it as an overpowering reverberation, whereas Elijah a half-millennium later heard it in the same place as a still, small voice (I Kings 19:12). Yet they come from the same source, and all are One.

Rabbi Ishmael taught that only the general principles of the Torah were spoken at the day of revelation, whereas the 613 mitzvot of the Torah were expounded in the course of the remaining forty years. But Rabbi Akiva taught that all of the minutiae of Torah were revealed at Sinai (Heschel, Heavenly Torah, p. 378). Perhaps there is no contradiction here, for the detailed applications are implied in the overarching principles, as all the theorems of geometry are implied, once one has stipulated the axioms and postulates that are the core of the system. Indeed, the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria, in his treatises The Decalogue and The Special Commandments, organized all the specific laws of the Torah under the headings of the Ten Commandments, which he interpreted as one major principle from which all else is derived.

The twentieth-century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig agreed with his friend Martin Buber that he did not want to think of God as a legislator. It is people’s business, not God’s, to codify laws. But Rosenzweig experienced God as a commanding presence in his life. What is the difference between command and law, according to Rosenzweig? Law addresses everyone categorically in the same language. God’s command addresses each of us as an individual, taking into account our idiosyncrasies and special situation. It is customized to bring out of each of us what we can contribute, based on our individuality, to the common welfare. It constitutes a unique bond between ourselves and God. It is our unique portion of Torah, one out of the 600,000 portions given at Sinai.

Some may feel overwhelmed by the imposing array of teachings and imperatives of Torah. Can one individual take on so much? It is scary to contemplate! To counter this fear, a second-century rabbi counseled: “Whoever fulfills even a single commandment is treated well, his life is prolonged, and he inherits the Land” (Mishnah Kiddushin 1:10, cited in Heavenly Torah p. 172). The people of Israel are compared to the “four species” of the lulav (citron, palm, myrtle and willow) each possesses some virtues and lacks others, but taken together they complement each other and compensate for each other’s deficiencies (Leviticus Rabbah 30:12). So each of us can feel that whatever we experience God as commanding us individually is our own personal commandment, our unique thread in the tapestry of the covenant between God and the Jewish people.

Rabbi Lenny Levin teaches philosophy at AJR and is the author of Why God Is Subject To Murphy’s Law.