Skip to content

Parashat Yitro 5778 — 02/03/2018

Parashat Yitro 5778 — 02/03/2018

L’ilui nishmat Ephraim ben Nachum / Fred Rosenberg may his memory be a blessing

Shemot 18:1-20:23

What was the nature of the Revelation at Mt. Sinai? Abarbanel lists eight miracles associated with the revelation and explains their significance:

Abarbanel begins by noting eight miraculous occurrences related to the Revelation: (1) the thunder, (2) the lightning, (3) the thick cloud over the mountain, (4) the trickle of water from the cloud, (5) the sound of the shofar that grew increasingly powerful, (6) the powerful human-like voice of Gd that spoke from the midst of the fire, (7) the smoke that ascended from the mountain when Gd descended upon it, and (8) the violent quaking of the entire mountain.

… they were intended to hint to us the limitations of the human mind. The sound of the thunder represents the sounds of a diversity of opinions that a diversity of great minds can produce, and the lack of clarity that comes with this. No human mind can produce a profound idea that will gain universal acceptance. The lightning hints at the fact that even though the superiority of the wise man in comparison with the ignoramus is like light compared dark, the wise man’s understanding is nothing more than a flash of lightning that illuminates the area for but one brief moment. The human mind sometimes allows the truth to burst forth and sometimes hides it away, but it lacks the ability to see the light of truth at all times.

The heavy cloud and the thin trickle of moisture represent the human intellect’s inability to do more than scratch the surface of the true nature of existence. Regarding this idea, Abarbanel quotes Rambam: “The object of Gd’s revealing Himself in thick clouds, darkness, vapors, and mist was to teach this lesson: … that we cannot comprehend Him on account of the physical body that envelops us… It does not, however, mean that darkness surrounds Gd, for with regard to Him there is no darkness…” (Moreh Nevuchim 3:9). Our physical limitations prevent us from truly understanding Gd and His creations.

Perhaps these miracles are intended to hint to us some intellectual concepts regarding knowledge of the transcendent, which is what Torah is. However, to the people standing at Mt. Sinai, they were very real experiences. I’d like to see if we can learn something about those experiences, and what it may tell us about the human capacity for experiencing and understanding the transcendent.

The Midrash tells us that the Torah is the blueprint of creation: Gd looked into the Torah and created the world. Further, the Torah that we have, while complete and unified in itself, is but an earthly reflection of the “supernal Torah”: “R. Simeon ben Lakish said: The Torah given to Moses was written with black fire upon white fire, sealed with fire, and swathed with bands of fire.” (Yerushalmi Shelamim 6:1, 49d) The commentators tell us that the black fire is the actual words of the Torah, but the white fire is the gaps between and around the letters and the words, from which the words emerge. The black fire is the expressed value of Torah, the actual commandments and narratives that are tied to our earthly existence. The white fire is the area that is transcendental to the expressed Torah, but in which, in some sense, the expressed values of Torah reside.

This idea that “Gd looked into Torah” hints at the fact that the Torah is not part of creation – it is something on a deeper level. Apparently Torah preceded creation, since it is creation’s blueprint. But we believe that only Gd is uncreated and eternal. It would then follow that in some way Torah is actually part of Gd’s nature – not separate from Gd, nor a “part” of Gd (since Gd has no parts – see Rambam’s 2nd Principle of Faith). In some way it is an aspect of Gd’s internal, virtual structure. Perhaps we can say that “Gd looked into Torah” really means that “Gd looked into Himself.” Creation comes out of Gd’s Self-referral nature.

A hint of this may be found in the Elokai N’tzor prayer said at the end of each Amidah. We ask Gd to ” … do it [save us from various sins] for the sake of Your Holiness, do it for the sake of Your Torah.” Gd’s Holiness is his Transcendental nature (the Hebrew word for holiness, kedusha, has as its root the meaning “set apart”). Gd’s Torah is that Transcendental nature preparing to express itself as creation – it is an inner dynamism, intrinsic to the silence. And that inner dynamism can be expressed in sound, and that sequence of sounds is Torah, according to the Zohar. Since the structure of the inner dynamism then gets expressed as Creation, the Torah is the blueprint of Creation – if we can understand the sequence of sounds, not so much intellectually, but intuitively, we intuit the entirety of the created world.

Perhaps these ideas can give us a hint of what the people experienced at Mt. Sinai, and what Moshe Rabbeinu experienced all the time. We are able to experience a state of consciousness which is totally abstract, by taking a particular object of perception and letting it become finer and finer, until it completely fades out and our awareness is awake in itself, but has no content of awareness. This state is transcendental to all of our thinking processes, without any boundaries of specific thoughts; therefore it is beyond time and space, eternally silent. Yet since it has the quality of awareness, it is also eternally awake to itself, taking on the qualities of knower, known and process of knowing. This virtual structure within the silence of the transcendent is what allows for its virtual dynamism. Perhaps we could think of this virtual dynamism as a flow between the virtual “parts” of the transcendent, bearing in mind that the transcendent really has no parts at all – it is simple unity.

This coexistence of silence and dynamism may be reflected in the Midrash that tells us that when Gd revealed Torah at Mt. Sinai, “not a bird chirped nor a dog barked.” The universe became silent, reflecting the silence of the transcendent, while Gd was expressing Torah in a voice which grew louder and louder.

So the people at Mt. Sinai “saw the voices… .” They were able to perceive on a sensory level the Torah itself – the inner dynamism of the transcendent from which creation is structured, but which itself exists eternally within the silence of the transcendent. The experience was overwhelming. Moshe Rabbeinu, on the other hand, had a nervous system that was pure and refined enough to maintain the experience at all times – he knew Gd face-to-face. Our Sages tell us that Moshe uniquely saw as “through a clear glass” and was able to pass the experience down. Our job on earth is to get as close as we possibly can to Moshe Rabbeinu’s level, where Torah is revealed to us through as clear a glass as possible.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Yitro

In this central portion of Torah, not only Moses but all our ancestors get a view of Gd and hear His Voice but are frightened and say to Moses (paraphrasing) “You speak to us; if Gd speaks to us, we will die.”

They say this after Gd appears to them as Fire, and they hear His Voice as He gives out the fundamental principles of our faith (actually, of any moral life) what are commonly called the “Ten Commandments” but which literally mean “the ten words” or “the ten sayings.”

Moses responds” “Fear not for Gd has come to exalt you in order that His Awe shall be on your faces and you shall not sin.”

Nonetheless, the people remain away from the mountain, as Gd commanded, while Moses approaches Gd and Gd tell Moses what further to say to the people.

Since the purpose of life is to return to the Primordial Oneness in which the separation between individual and Gd does not exist, we must find some way that we can experience Gd without being afraid and then to dissolve the separation, to not stand in the way when Gd dissolves the separation, between us.

The Ten Sayings can be looked at as descriptions of how we live when we are in harmony with Gd and when Oneness dominates in our awareness; they can also be looked at as guides to behavior so that we rise to the level in which the Harmony is Full and the fear due to separation dissolves, both from our side and from Gd’s.

This is the level when all our behavior is fully an expression of Oneness and even though we appear to each other’s senses as limited individuals, with limited physiologies, in reality we are Totality, All-in-All, Oneness behaving as infinite individuals while remaining All.
Just our simple, innocent, decent lives raise us in this direction, return us little by little and in a way, a lot by a lot, to Love, Joy, Wholeness, Oneness. Torah is our guide.

Baruch HaShem