Yitro: When We Stood at Sinai

Exodus 18:1–20:23

When I think about being Jewish there’s a wealth of associations that call to me. They involve family and food, music and prayer, laughter and sadness. It’s both genetic and environmental. Reinforced in different ways, times, and places of my life. But each association involves stories: family stories, stories from history, and Sunday school stories. Stories of everything from recipes to Holocaust to Torah.

Because we’re by nature and identity a story-telling people. The people of the book. That book, the Torah, is on some level a large and lovely collection of stories about our people, our relationship to one another, to other peoples, and to HaShem. For thousands of years it’s been both a source and an end point, depending on who’s telling the stories. Some embrace the words as literal truth, and others as metaphor, studying and interpreting, trying to make the words fit their lives and times.

I see Torah, at its heart, as a liberation story. On the most literal level from creation to the cusp of the promised land. And as a metaphor for personal and collective transformation.

We’re now at a tremendous arc of that story. The next step in the lineage that began in Gan Eden and just led us out of mitzrayim. We’re standing at the foot of Sinai.

The parshah’s got a simple plot. Moses’ father-in-law Jethro helps him set up a system of judges to administer the tribes. The Isrealites camp at the foot of Sinai and are told Hashem has chosen them as a nation of priests and a holy people. Hashem hovers above Sinai and with thunder, lightening, smoke, and shofar blasts proclaims the Ten Commandments. The people beg Moses to be their interlocutor because the whole experience is too intense.

The commandments are a lifetime of teaching on their own, and not my focus tonight. But for an interesting exercise, some quiet evening when you’re peaceful and alone, write them one by one. As you do, think about your relationship with each one throughout your life. It’s a fascinating way to get perspective on the evolution of your values.

I’m guessing there’s few murderers here, though many of us have had to make tough and sad decisions about the lifelines of our pets. I suspect there’s more coveters amongst us, and I’m certainly guilty.

But as you work from the specific to the metaphoric, the literal to the personal, think more broadly. For example, consider how you may have constricted parts of yourself to accommodate a job or an intimate relationship, which is killing in a different form. I respect the mitzvot of the literal, but we also live our lives in multiple domains.

As you reflect, witness what you feel, and how you feel it, in body, heart, and soul. Pay special attention to the parts of you they touch fiercely. To what energizes you and what frightens you. To what makes you feel strong in your core, and what makes you want to run as far and fast as possible. When you do, you’ll get a nano-meter [fingers tight] closer to understanding what it might have felt to stand at Sinai.

We Jews are generally a pretty heady group. We’re smart. We’re used to thinking and talking about difficult concepts. We’ve got the classic “yiddische kopf.” We analyze, schmooze, make jokes (good and bad), and share regularly and historically. Hundreds of generations parsing the finer points of Torah. Smarting and outsmarting one another. But that’s a head space.

Sinai is very, very different. Hundreds of thousands standing at the base of a sacred mountain. A “high place” in Biblical lexicon. Only Moses ascends. The rest below hearing HaShem’s voice. Hearing, not talking with God. We’re not Abraham or Moses. It’s not interactive. Not a dialogue. No chance to say, Could you please edit #7 ‘cause it sounds kinda hard.

What interests me most about Sinai is the connection between revelation and receptivity. Independent of knowledge or practice, something I’ve always treasured about Kabbalah is that its literal meaning is “to receive.”

Sinai’s in part a story about how we received. About the senses. Some literal, like the midrash that we heard color, and saw sound. That our normal ways of taking in information were completely scrambled. In part to highlight the importance of what was going on. In part because HaShem speaks differently than we do. And in part to demonstrate that even though it was overwhelming, no part of us remained untouched by the experience.

Sinai was a moment when listening meant being fully opened, fully receptive, as individuals and a collective. Every fibre straining to take in holiness, because the impact of receiving the divine word is visceral. Physical as well as mental. Emotional as well as intellectual. Spiritual and material at the same time, through the filter of our very human forms.

This level of receptivity is something we don’t use often enough in our lives. Shabbat is given us in part to honor and hone it. New love evokes it, though we sometimes listen more attentively with other chakras. Mystics long for moments like Sinai. Some of us find glimpses though meditation, in nature, or in flashes of deep personal insight.

It’s all about being open. And about allowing yourself to be changed by what comes in.

In Torah study we talk about four levels of interpretation. These correspond to ways that we receive information. There’s peshat: the literal or direct meaning; the word as spoken. Remez: the hidden, symbolic, or allegorical meaning, given in hints. Derash: the midrashic meaning, found in comparison and interpretation. And Sod: the esoteric, mystical meaning, given through inspiration and revelation.

Sinai is the crossroads of all four, in the continual present time of Hebrew, a language without clear past or future tenses.

There’s another midrash that each Jewish soul was present at Sinai. So at the level of neshemah [trans-incarnative higher soul] we still carry that experience within us, and reinforce it when we read Torah.

We talk about the Torah being written in black fire carved on the white parchment. That we’re seeing not only the letters but through the space between them. Not held in or by two dimensions. Instead, allowing our souls to move into other realms, and Torah to penetrate us in the here and now.

How do we take the Sinai experience into our beingness? I don’t know if you think about such things, or contemplate how you learn in terms of senses, chakras, four worlds or levels, or some other bio-cosmology.

I don’t know how you decide something is true with a capital T. I only know how I feel when I feel it, because it happens with a certain sense of knowing. One that creates an inner stillness, a completeness of attention and receptivity.

For me, when head, heart, body, body, and soul are in alignment, it is transformational. Times slows. It makes me much more conscious, and subsequently much more willing to change the who and how of my everyday life. To live whatever I have been commanded, not just think about it.

Like a tuning fork aligned to a specific pitch, that I recognize it because it’s a sense memory of how it has felt before. It moves me in more than my head. I don’t reason or argue or bargain or try to weasel out of the knowing. I feel it and I am whole with it.

It doesn’t necessarily last as long as I’d like. And it didn’t for the Isrealites either, given the number of times we’re told in the Tanakh that they broke their covenants with HaShem. But at least in that eternal moment, in the however long in earth time it took for HaShem speak the commandments, in that time, every one must have felt something. Even if the experience overwhelmed them with terror.

What happened at Sinai opened people up by shattering what was known or familiar. It took them out of their rational comfort zone, demanded their full attention, and ultimately full surrender.

Sinai evokes the idea of brokenness. How we need to be opened in order to let in HaShem’s voice. How we need to be so reversed from our normal patterns that we are forever changed simply by having had the experience.

We need to be opened to receive HaShem. To have that experience be grounded in our physical bodies, so that it can continue to reverberate and echo in us. So that the revelation can continue to manifest in and through us.

I know it’s late and people are ready for announcements, oneg, and bed. But in the absence of time travel, I’d like us to share the briefest of meditations. I love the idea of doing it here, in this lovely sanctuary, with the ark glowing magically white in the soft light.

I want to take a few quiet minutes to have us feel, really feel, with our eyes, and ears, and skin, in each taste bud and each fingertip. To remember what it was to stand and hear God’s voice.

I invite you to meet me and the rest of us at the base of the sacred mountain. Allow yourself to go back to when you stood at Sinai, and this happened to you. Be open. Let yourself receive. Feel the divine word coming into and through you.

Take that energy in, and when you return put it out again into the world in your own unique and authentic way, for who and how you have come here to be now, in this lifetime. Let each breath help you remember when you stood at Sinai.

[2 min]

Shabbat shalom