When God spoke at Sinai, the message was beyond words


Exodus 18:1-20:23

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

Amidst the thunder, the lightning, the trembling, the dense cloud upon the mountain and the sound of the shofar, “God spoke all these words.” (Exodus 20:1). This week’s Torah portion describes the revelation at Sinai, an earth-shattering moment in which the people of Israel stood together and heard the word of God. Heaven and earth touched, Torah was given and the Jewish tradition began as God spoke!

The concept is mind-boggling — God spoke?! How can we possibly imagine the voice of God, giving law, commanding mitzvahs? What likely comes to mind for many is Cecil B. DeMille’s version in “The Ten Commandments” or even Mel Brooks’ version in “History of the World: Part 1.” But beyond the entertaining approaches of Hollywood, how might we understand the revelation at Sinai?

Throughout the ages, numerous rabbinic interpretations have addressed this question, just as modern theologians have attempted to grasp the notion that “God spoke.” Some have taken the maximalist approach, that is, that the entire Torah, including all of the oral tradition passed down by the rabbis, was given by God at Sinai.

In one famous talmudic midrash, God sends Moses centuries into the future to visit Rabbi Akiva’s classroom. As Rabbi Akiva is teaching Torah to his students, Moses is distressed that he can’t follow the discussion. It is only when the students ask their teacher about a particular point — “from where does this come?” and Rabbi Akiva answers, “It is a law given to Moses at Sinai” — that Moses is relieved. The story suggests that even though Torah evolves over the course of the centuries, Moses would be pleased to know that even an unrecognizable Judaism, dramatically changed through years of interpreting Torah, continues to be attributed to the revelation at Sinai.

In modern times, some would ascribe human authorship to the Torah and explain Sinai as a legend from our ancient past, but others would offer a concept of revelation that is nonliteral but still Divine.

Despite the many varying attempts to understand revelation, from ancient times to modern times, our sages would agree that the notion that “God spoke” is beyond the limits of our human comprehension. And so they use fanciful images and fantastic midrashim to describe it.

For example, the rabbis have said that each of the commandments was said simultaneously in 70 languages and that the Torah was written with black fire on white fire. Another midrash suggests that each individual heard revelation differently, according to their capacity, just as the manna tasted different to different people.

Underlying all of these midrashim is the same central point: Revelation cannot be limited to one understanding, to one time or to one place. Perhaps that’s why we never associated Sinai with a particular geographic mountain, whereas other religious groups consider sacred an actual place they call Mount Sinai. Jews don’t want to restrict “Sinai” to one place or experience; rather, we recognize that revelation can happen whenever we learn Torah and wherever we are open to hearing God’s voice.

The Torah is not a closed book, and Sinai was not a one-time event. Rather, revelation is ongoing. And it’s available to us in the quietest of moments.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches a beautiful Chassidic text that suggests that the content of what God spoke wasn’t necessarily the Torah or the Ten Commandments. Rather, taught 18th-century Rabbi Mendl of Rymanov, it is possible that at Sinai we heard nothing but the sound of the first letter of the first of the Ten Commandments, the letter aleph of “Anochi” (the first word of “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage”). And the sound of an aleph? Silence, of course.

Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Rabbi Chai Levy
Rabbi Chai Levy

Rabbi Chai Levy is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.