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Parashat Yitro

February 3, 2016

Parashat Yitro: What Makes the Thunder?

I once heard physicist Karen Barad explain how lightning happens. She showed us how charged particles on the ground and oppositely charged particles in the sky find their way to one another, reacting to produce a flash of lightning. The method by which the particles find one another across such a distance cannot be explained completely by contemporary science. Lightning and thunder are still a mystery. So, too, the thunder and lightning in Parashat Yitro present a mystery.

The Torah is given in the wilderness in the context of a supernatural thunderstorm. The thunder on Mount Sinai is one of the most memorable elements of revelation:

On the third day, as dawn broke, there was thunder and lightning, and thick cloud upon the mountain…Now Mount Sinai was entirely smoke, for YHWH 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 became louder and louder. Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19:16, 18-19)  All the people saw the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn, and the mountain smoking… (Exodus 20:15)

The fire, cloud, and roaring sound make the revelation of Torah all the more mysterious and awe-inspiring. But what is the true nature of the thunder and lightning? How should we understand it in relationship to Torah?

There are (at least) two ways to read the magnificent storm on Mount Sinai. In one way of reading, the storm is secondary to the revelation of Torah, and is essentially a way for God to prove that the Torah comes from a divine source. Midrash Tanhuma (Lech Lekha 6) takes this position while praising the righteousness of a convert. The midrash says:

If those who stood at Mount Sinai had not experienced the thunder, the flames, the lightning, the quaking of the mountain, and the sound of the shofarot, they would not have accepted upon themselves the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven.  The convert, who witnessed none of these things, makes himself acceptable to the Holy One of Blessing and receives upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. Is there anyone more precious than this?

In other words, the thunder and lightning convince the people to listen to the revealed words of the Torah and the authority of God. God produces these signs to astound the people and convert them to faith in the Torah. The thunder and lightning are a means to an end; they are not a revelation in themselves.

But there is another reading, in which the lightning storm on Sinai is itself a revelation. In the Mekhilta (Bahodesh 9), the lightning is the fire of Torah.

“All the people saw the thunder.” They saw that which was visible and heard that which was audible. These are the words of Rabbi Ishmael. Rabbi Akiva taught: they saw and heard that which was visible. They saw the fiery word that went out from the Almighty, the word hewn into the tablets, as it is said: “The voice of YHWH flashes forth flames of fire.”

In this midrash, the lightning and thunder are the Torah embodied. When the people “see” thunder and experience lightning, they are seeing the fire of revelation inscribing words of Torah. The thunderstorm is not secondary, but rather the primary experience of standing at Sinai.

Rabbeinu Bachya offers a slightly different perspective:

There were voices, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain–the voices were those of the angels who praise the Holy One of Blessing every morning, as it is written: when all the morning stars sang together and all the divine beings shouted for joy (Job 38:7).

Here, the thunder is the voices of angels praising the beauty of creation: a revelation of heavenly beauty and power. While this revelation is separate from the content of the Torah, it reveals the workings of heaven. I have to say that this midrash brings back memories. As a child, my mother would tell me, during thunderstorms, that the angels were bowling. I still remember, after a particularly loud thunderclap, my brother and me yelling: “Strike!” The legend that the people heard angels singing at Sinai lends force to the idea that Sinai was a revelation not only of a text, but of a deeper reality.

One particularly simple and beautiful commentary, offered by Perush Rabbi Meyuhas ben Eliyahu and cited by S. Y. Agnon in his book Present at Sinai, is particularly moving to me. Rabbi Meyuhas ben Eliyahu writes: “Thunder and lightning–a roar like that of the Chariot in motion.” In other words, the thunder at Sinai is the sound of God moving. The thunder is not an accessory to revelation but a revelation of the Divine Presence itself. In this midrash, the thunder and lightning at Sinai is not a mere advertisement for the Torah’s divinity, but rather an intimation of divinity in its most immanent and accessible form. Sinai thus becomes a double revelation: the Torah, and the Torah’s Revealer.

I find myself touched by the story of Sinai when I imagine the sound of the thunder as the sound of God in motion–a sound that perhaps guides us to walk in God’s company. I can imagine the people, gathered around the mountain, hearing the journey of the Presence toward them. As we encounter Parashat Yitro, may we learn to hear in the sounds of the world around us, the footsteps of the Divine.


Rabbi Jill Hammer is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR.  She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.