Beyond the Noise
Beyond the Noise
The Revelation on Mt. Sinai . . . the giving of the Ten Commandments . . . our Torah portion, Yitro, describes the scene with great fanfare. The text has given cinematographers plenty of good material: thunder and lightning, smoke rising up into the sky, the whole mountain shaking violently, and the loud blaring of a horn, sometimes specifically called a shofar. Miraculous? Inspiring? Awesome? Yes, our Sages teach, but it was also really, really noisy.
When the medieval rabbis read about Sinai, they focus our attention on that seemingly unimportant detail of just how loud it all must have been. One medieval commentator, the French rabbi known as Rashbam, teaches that the description of God answering Moses "in thunder" is really a metaphor about the volume of God's voice—God had to shout to be heard over all of the other noise at Sinai! (see Rashbam on Exodus 19:19). And God was shouting for good reason. "The blast [of the shofar] was louder than any sound that had ever been heard before," Rashbam's contemporary, the Spanish sage Ibn Ezra writes on Exodus 19:16.
My ears hurt just thinking about that! I'm not the kind who enjoys the first row of a concert without earplugs, so to me, the idea of all that noise sounds, at best, like a necessary evil to create the right dramatic moment for the real miracle of Revelation. But incredibly, Ibn Ezra teaches that it was not God's Presence in the smoke on the mountain, not the Ten Commandments, not the finger of God inscribing the tablets, but that loud blast that was the greatest miracle of all that took place at Mt. Sinai (see ibn Ezra on Exodus 19:13).
What could he be thinking of? What's so miraculous about noise?
One explanation could be that although the text describes the blasts as "the sound of the shofar," the same ram's horn that we are familiar with from Rosh HaShanah, some rabbis understood the Torah to mean that the sound at Sinai was not produced by a physical instrument or shofar. Instead, they believed the sound itself was a miracle because God produced it out of thin air, with no musical instrument or human voice required. Alternatively, others considered the shofar in question to be the horn of the very ram that was offered up in place of Isaac after Abraham nearly sacrificed his son.
But there's another, more subtle, reason why we might consider that shofar blast to be a miracle. This third reason is not about the sound itself, but about our ability to hear. The 11th century French sage, Rashi, points out that "ordinarily, the longer one blows [on a horn], the weaker the blare gets. But here, it started soft and got louder. Why was it soft at first? To break in the ear with something it was capable of hearing" (Rashi on Exodus 19:19).
The implication seems to be that the blast of the horn at Sinai was a sound we were not capable of hearing at first—it was simply too loud. But slowly, God was able to open up our ears, to expand our capacity for hearing. Our ears, the text imagines, can become attuned to sounds that earlier we had not been able to tolerate. Our ears can begin to hear God in sounds that earlier we would not even have been able to process.
Martin Buber, the 20th century German Jewish philosopher whose theology of relationship is most famously described in his book I and Thou, taught that the central Revelation at Sinai was not the content of the Ten Commandments—not the list of rules, not the categories of ethics—but the very encounter with God—the very fact of Revelation itself. The most important thing about Sinai is not what God said, but the fact that God speaks—and that we hear.
There is so much in this world that each of us is deaf to: so much that we refuse to hear, and so much that we are incapable of truly hearing. Perhaps the greatest miracle of all is that we are capable of growth in this regard. We can learn not to stop up our ears and our hearts; we can begin to hear perspectives that had previously never been audible to us. I think this is true of our relationships with others, and it is also true of our relationship with God.
Perhaps revelation is not simply the process of being given new truths, but of learning to open our ears and our hearts to something we never could have heard before. Perhaps it as not just at Sinai, but throughout our lives, that God is teaching us how to hear the Divine Voice. Perhaps that Voice is calling to us—so loudly, so loudly! And one day, when we least expect it, we may find ourselves suddenly able to hear it.
In Yitro, we find ourselves at the base of Sinai encountering God as one people, as we receive Torah. It is a sacred moment meant to reverberate down the generations. We were all there. We all stood at Sinai.
Revelation is a gift. It disrupts our senses and prepares us for something entirely new. However, revelation of any kind, especially the sacred kind, doesn't just fall in our laps. We come to Sinai; Sinai doesn't come to us. The story of Sinai teaches us to prepare ourselves—for Revelation could be around the corner at any moment if our eyes are open.
One of the most profound gifts of Sinai as a model is that it teaches us that we need not travel alone on our spiritual journeys. When we gathered at the base of the mountain, we didn't show up alone. We arrived as one community.
Spirituality today is often imagined and construed as an individual journey. It is linked with the notion of turning inward. To be sure, our sacred texts are full of such examples of solitary prayer: of our forefathers each building altars on their own to God, of Isaac walking alone the field, of Hannah wordlessly pouring out her heart. But then along comes this portion, Yitro to challenge this notion that the spiritual can only be found in the solitary.
Perhaps the purpose of our standing together at Sinai is to remind us and to ground us in the fundamental notion that we first learn at the very beginning of our human journey together: it is not good for us to be alone.1 Great things—even Revelation—can happen when we journey together, when we stand together, and when we acknowledge with awe the beauty of the world together.
1. Adapted from Genesis 2:18
Rabbi Jill Perlman is the Associate Rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA.
Yitro, Exodus 18:1–20:23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 508–565; Revised Edition, pp. 468–506;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 407–426
Haftarah, Isaiah 6:1–7:6; 9:5–6
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 710–713; Revised Edition, pp. 507–509