Thursday, January 20, 2011

Yitro

This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, details the revelation at Mount Sinai and the giving of the Torah, including the Ten Commandments.  It is these words that are emblazoned on the walls of many sanctuaries. 

“I am the Lord your God.  You shall have no other gods beside Me.  You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.  Remember the Sabbath day.  Honor your father and mother.  You shall not murder.  You shall not commit adultery.  You shall not steal.   You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.  You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.”  (Exodus 20)

The most interesting of verses however, immediately follows the Ten Comandments: “All the people saw the thunder and lighting, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance.”  The revelation at Mount Sinai was accompanied by many miracles and wonders. 

But how could the people see thunder?  The first answer is that the event was so miraculous that the revelation defied reason.  God could make the people see what is normally only heard.  A second explanation is that the experience overwhelmed human senses.  A powerful experience sometimes confuses the senses in the same way that a smell can trigger a memory and bring tears.  Still I question: what is the meaning of seeing thunder?

Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Rubinstein, a 20th century Hasidic rabbi, writes: “What they heard on Mount Sinai they later saw translated into action in their homes, in the way they lived and in their behavior.  What they heard they later saw: the spirit of the Sabbath, the spirit of kosher food, the spirit of purity. They saw the sound.  Often, sound remains that that and no more.  There are people who hear but never see; there is nothing in their daily behavior which gives evidence of the Torah which they heard.”

Every time we live by the words of our tradition, every time we live by the words of the Torah, we see the thunder.  The miraculous is in our hands!  Miracles are not about quaking mountains and booming voices.  They are instead within our grasp.  It is as simple as transforming feelings into action.

Judaism often, if not always, seeks to translate feelings into action.  In fact the Ten Commandment’s coveting is understood by the tradition as stealing property.  Commandment eight is then re-imagined as stealing a person, namely kidnapping.  Our tradition measures people by what they do rather than what they profess, what they perform rather than what they feel.  Judaism is uncomfortable with feelings.  It is skeptical about the heart.  It chooses instead to rely on the hands.

I wonder how many feelings and promises have failed to reach my hands.  How many good intentions have never worked their way out of my heart?  How many remain locked within?  And so I resolve—again and again, if Judaism is to be a force for good then it must leave the heart and reach out to the world!  Let us not be “people who hear but never see.”  Thunder can in fact be seen—each and every day, in each and every one of our lives.

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