Yitro: the many ways we witness Gods presence


Exodus 18:1-20:23

Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6

This week's majestic parashah brings us the story of the revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai. The event is described in the most powerful ways, complete with thunder and lightning, smoke and fire, tremors in the earth and other-worldly, intense blasts of the shofar.

Then again, in this week's magnificent haftarah, we hear the prophet Isaiah's experience of revelation.

He tells of seeing God seated on a lofty throne, surrounded by winged seraphim, calling out to one another, "Holy, holy, holy! The Lord of Hosts! God's presence fills all the earth!"

How are we to understand these extraordinary descriptions of direct contact with God?

We are flooded with questions about what sort of God could speak to humans and how.

In times of reflection, we might still the intellect and simply wish that such moments of revelation were available to us. In moments of pain, in times when we desperately need guidance, we wish there were some way for us to hear God's voice. We know that the voice would not sound like the voices heard at Sinai, and would not look anything like prophetic visions. The voices would be smaller, often in the form of a human voice, often felt — rather than heard — from deep within. We ache for an indication that we are on the right path.

On this week when the Jewish world once again reads the Aseret Hadibrot, what the tradition calls the "Ten Words," I would like to suggest 10 ways that even we, so far from Sinai, can still hear God's voice.

1. In nature. Sometimes God may speak to us through nature. A particular way the clouds shape themselves, the way the sun bursts forth as we walk on the beach, the perfectly placed rainbow may bring us a message that is surely divine.

2. In relationships. When just the right old friend calls at the right moment, when a stranger comes forward with a powerful piece of wisdom, when love appears, we may feel God's love if we can perceive what lies beneath the purely human level of life.

3. In "coincidences." It has been said that coincidences are those occasions when God chooses to remain anonymous. An unexpected opportunity or turn of events, a serendipitous encounter with a friend may be the best evidence of God's presence.

4. In conflicts. When we find ourselves in conflict with another, suffering with our own inability to change, yearning to change another yet knowing we cannot, this may be the voice of God telling us we must take a different course.

5. In loss. So often people who have known profound loss come to sense God's voice in the midst of their pain. The voice may simply whisper, "You're going to be OK," or "You know what to do."

6. In unexpected blessings. Surely, we can recognize God smiling behind the lovely surprises that life brings. Are these less real than a mountain covered with smoke?

7. In storms. When the storms come, we may have our most direct encounters with God's power. These encounters are not comforting. But they are reminders of what our small place really is in the world, and what is really important.

8. In children. If we can slow down enough to listen with openness and humility, the children in our lives can be the best source of wisdom. They may have easier access to their Source than we do.

9. In the Jewish calendar. When we can enter deeply into the rhythm of the Jewish year, we can open ourselves to the ancient call of the divine. When Chanukah comes and lifts us out of a personal darkness, when Purim calls us into sheer silliness and Simchat Torah draws us to joy, there may be a divine voice calling just to us.

10. In Torah. Those of us who are blessed to have Torah in our lives have an eternal source of our people's wisdom waiting at any moment. The Torah narrative that touches our soul, the "coincidence" of an image in the weekly parashah that tells us exactly what we need to hear, a word of commentary that opens up a new world of understanding in our own lives are all available to us at any moment. All we need to do is open and listen.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at rabbiamyeilberg.com.