What does it mean to “hear” the commanding “voice” of God? A key word in this week’s portion suggests that it is not necessarily all that clear. Moreover, one particularly trenchant verse in the haftarah reinforces the problem with understanding revelation (which I am equating with the notion of hearing the commanding voice of God).
After three days of preparing for an event to occur on Mount Sinai, Moshe gathered the people together at the foot of the mountain. The summit became engulfed in a furious storm of lightening, clouds and thunder. “The whole mountain trembled violently.” Moshe began to speak to God: “The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder: As Moshe spoke, God answered him…”
Before proceeding, a speculative question: What do you think Moshe was saying to God at that moment?
Continuing: The word with which the Torah tells us that God answered Moshe is richly ambiguous. That word is “kol” which literally means ‘voice’, ‘thunder’ or ‘sound’. At this critical juncture of communications between God, Moshe and the Israelites, we are left wondering what exactly was heard!
Some have maintained that what Moshe heard was the sound of thunder, which was tantamount to hearing God’s voice, as suggested in Psalm 18:14 (“The Lord thundered from Heaven”). His gift of prophecy, if you will, was the ability to “hear the voice of God” within the sound that everyone else heard as thunder, and translate this voice into words, more specifically into the Ten Commandments which immediately follow. (See Seek My Face, Speak My Name, by Rabbi Art Green, p. 109, for more on this idea).
If Moshe “heard” in the thunder the revolutionary Ten Commandments, what meaning did everyone else take away from this encounter? I think that the haftarah suggests an answer to this question:
“Hear again and again – but without understanding; Look again and again – but without perceiving. Dull this people’s mind, stop its ears and cloud its eyes, or it may see with its eyes and hear with its ears and understand with its mind”
In short, they failed to understand the meaning or message of the “voice of God”! To them it was just thunder. But why not? If they are like most us, would they not expect to “hear the voice of God” speaking to them in a familiar language? On some level, do we not expect to literally hear the voice of God as if it were the result of the same mechanics and physics that produce our voices? How often have we failed to hear or understand the “voice of God” speaking to us through nature; or human acts of courage, kindness, and compassion; or through poetic, musical, and other ingenious human acts of creation; or through scientific inspiration? What is it, in the words of Isaiah, that dulls minds, stops up ears or clouds eyes and results in hearing without understanding and seeing without perceiving?
I am not sure whether it is humbling or comforting to realize that we (or at least I) suffer from the same kind of difficulties discerning God’s voice in the world around me as the Israelites did in the time of Moshe and again hundreds of years later in the time of Isaiah.