Rehearing God's Voice
Shavuot celebrates how Jews once heard God's voice on Sinai. But how do we hear God in our lives today?
BY: Jonathan Wittenberg
For thus it is said, "Face to face did God speak . . ." for the whole of creation was directed upward toward the root of its vitality; and . . . when God said, "I am the Lord your God," every single particle of creation thought it was to itself that the divine word was addressed.
--Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Lev of Ger, Sefat Emet
For lovers the question is almost never, "Did you love me then?"; it is, "Do you love me now?" The same is true of our relationship with God; the crucial question is not about the past but about the present. If a couple are chiefly concerned with whether or not they loved each other once, it is probably correct to infer that they doubt that they do so now. Similarly, the issue is not whether we once heard the voice of God in the Torah, but whether we hear it and feel the love of God today.
When I teach children I try to communicate to them something of the love of Torah. I show them my mother's father's Torah scroll. I tell them how my grandfather was a chaplain in the German army for the duration of the First World War. I speculate with them as to whether this was the reason why his Torah scroll is so small--little enough to fit into a kit bag. I tell the class how, when my grandfather was sent to Dachau after Kristallnacht, the Nazis came and made my grandmother, my mother, and her Sisters throw all his books out of the window of their first-floor flat, this scroll perhaps among them. I show them the letters, indicate the care with which each one is drawn, the crowns upon them, the exactly etched lines from which they hang, the evenness of the columns, explain the trouble taken so that every single word should be absolutely accurate. I talk to them abouthiddur mitzvah
, the principle of keeping the commandments in a graceful manner, and trust that this will convey to them some small portion of what the love of Torah means for the Jewish people who have nurtured it with so much dedication through the ages.
Yet, these are only the outer garments of Torah. To the spirit it is not the outward form so much as the inner voice that matters. It is to this part of the self that the mystics spoke, in the Talmud, the Midrash, the Zohar, and, above all, in the writings of the hasidic masters, declaring that that call has never ceased. For God speaks to every person all the time in a voice limited only by the capacity of each one of us to apprehend it. "We translatevelo yasaf
asthat never stopped
," explains Rashi, on the verse in Deuteronomy which teaches that God spoke at Sinai in a great voice out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, "because God's voice is strong and established forever." Therefore it is this same voice that a person hears today who experiences, arrested for a moment by some unanticipated glory, the sudden descent of awe. The Talmud says poetically that when each commandment was spoken the whole world filled with the aroma of spices. Hasidic literature repeatedly affirms that the residue of this fragrance is still present now and that, year by year, God is revealed again on Shavuot.