2016-06-30
Reprinted from "The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year" by Jonathan Wittenberg with permision from Aviv Press.

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 about hiddur 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 translate velo yasaf as that 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.

From where does God's voice come? Its source and origin lie within the ultimate freedom that it heralds. The Torah tells us that every fiftieth year the shofar is to be blown on the Day of Atonement to proclaim freedom throughout the land. If, then, God's voice was heard in the midst of the sound of the shofar on Mount Sinai, it too must be calling the world to freedom. The shofar itself, according to the Zohar, acquires the sound from what it describes as the original treasury of freedom. And it is this freedom that we taste when we hear God's voice, feel God's presence, and experience ourselves as spiritually alive. For when we are stirred by the awareness of God, whatever oppresses us releases us temporarily from its dominion, and we are.

Ancient tradition connects God's voice in the commandments with the divine utterance by which the world was made. All creation is therefore only a reification, a thickening into material substance, of the word of God as it travels through all the worlds. For everything, were we capable of so perceiving it, is only God's voice and being, embodied in the form of something else apart, a tree or a bird, a boy, a girl, or a cloud. When God said, "I am," then everything for a moment recognized its own essence and was reconnected to the source of its spirit, before the laws of nature by which the world is ordinarily governed came back into force and the Divine was once again concealed behind the clothes of its manifestation.

In moments of inner concentration we may become aware of the very essence of a thing. We perceive it not only according to its external form but feel ourselves to be communing with its inner being. Such moments become for the artist an image in a poem or a vision translated on to canvas. According to the mystical tradition, when God spoke at Sinai all the world was manifest with such intensity and we all had the capacity to perceive it in that way. God still speaks today; God speaks in all creation all the time. Now, however, the task of seeing the world like that is up to us.

What does God's voice say? On the one hand it speaks with redeeming beauty; it restores the soul. But on the other, it speaks in questions, it never fails to interrogate, piercing to the essence of who we are. It is as if the sequel to, "I am the Lord your God," were, "And who are you? What are you doing in my world?"

The questions are always the same, but no two of us hear them in the same manner, and no one of us experiences them in the same way at two different points in our life. Sometimes, in the rush of all we do, in the middle of the tasks that occupy our time, the questions merge with the voice that asks us what the point of all this running around really is. Sometimes the questions ask themselves in the silence before the consciousness of a great decision. Perhaps the people who brought Anne Frank food during those two years of hiding heard those questions and knew that they could live with them. Perhaps the unknown person who phoned the Gestapo and gave the family away smothered himself with constant himself with constant noise because he was afraid to hear them. Perhaps the questions will reach us at the end of our days; perhaps we will attai the wisdom to answer, "Here am I," content to return to the eternity out of which our atomized consciousness was drawn forth at our beginning.

While we live, the voice, and the questions which follow it, command us. That is why the simple statement, "I am the Lord your God," stands at the entrance to the Ten Commandments. We may or may not believe that in the formulation in which we have them the commandments are literally God's word, unsullied by human intervention. We may prefer to think, like Franz Rosenzweig, that everything that follows the basic declaration of God's presence is interpretation. But the command is real either way. "Nature itself prevents a person from sinning," teaches the Sefat Emet, for when we experience the presence of God in anything, in our fellow human beings, in animals, plants, or even things, what can we feel but utter respect, what can we do but strive to honor it? When we are touched by the knowledge of God, how can we really want to hurt or to destroy?



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