Sensory Overload: A Story of Revelation

The nation of Israel is ready to receive the Torah. Having left Egypt and wandered through the desert, we have now finally arrived at the foot of the mountain. It has been seven weeks, but it's felt like a lifetime. We are no longer the same people who were freed from bondage. Two months ago today, we received our first commandment as a nation; to sanctify the new moon. Today, as the cycle of the moon begins anew, we prepare to take the next step in our spiritual journey. We are now not only free; we are prepared to enter into covenant with God. Join us as we relive this experience, starting in the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Exodus.

Section 1: Preparation for Revelation

(א) בַּחֹ֙דֶשׁ֙ הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֔י לְצֵ֥את בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם בַּיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה בָּ֖אוּ מִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי׃ (ב) וַיִּסְע֣וּ מֵרְפִידִ֗ים וַיָּבֹ֙אוּ֙ מִדְבַּ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַֽיַּחֲנ֖וּ בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר וַיִּֽחַן־שָׁ֥ם יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל נֶ֥גֶד הָהָֽר׃ (ג) וּמֹשֶׁ֥ה עָלָ֖ה אֶל־הָאֱלֹקִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֨א אֵלָ֤יו ה' מִן־הָהָ֣ר לֵאמֹ֔ר כֹּ֤ה תֹאמַר֙ לְבֵ֣ית יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְתַגֵּ֖יד לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ד) אַתֶּ֣ם רְאִיתֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִׂ֖יתִי לְמִצְרָ֑יִם וָאֶשָּׂ֤א אֶתְכֶם֙ עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים וָאָבִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֖ם אֵלָֽי׃ (ה) וְעַתָּ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ֙ בְּקֹלִ֔י וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֑י וִהְיִ֨יתֶם לִ֤י סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים כִּי־לִ֖י כָּל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (ו) וְאַתֶּ֧ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֛י מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ אֵ֚לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר תְּדַבֵּ֖ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (ז) וַיָּבֹ֣א מֹשֶׁ֔ה וַיִּקְרָ֖א לְזִקְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיָּ֣שֶׂם לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם אֵ֚ת כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֔לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר צִוָּ֖הוּ ה'׃ (ח) וַיַּעֲנ֨וּ כָל־הָעָ֤ם יַחְדָּו֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה' נַעֲשֶׂ֑ה וַיָּ֧שֶׁב מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הָעָ֖ם אֶל־ה'׃
(1) On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone forth from the land of Egypt, on that very day, they entered the wilderness of Sinai. (2) Having journeyed from Rephidim, they entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the wilderness. Israel encamped there in front of the mountain, (3) and Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: (4) ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. (5) Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, (6) but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” (7) Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the LORD had commanded him. (8) All the people answered as one, saying, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to the LORD.

It is quite rare in Jewish history for our people to speak in a single voice. We are the people of "two Jews, three opinions", after all! Since leaving Egypt, we have complained to God and Moses about water and food. We have demonstrated our unwillingness to follow directions. We have come before Moses all day long to ask him to settle our disputes. And yet, in this moment, there appears to be total unanimity. We are ready to enter into covenant with God. We speak as one, perhaps without fully understanding what we are getting ourselves into. A few questions to ponder as we enter the next section of our story:


Questions to ponder:

1) Why do you think that the nation is able to speak with a single voice regarding their desire to enter into covenant with God?

2) What responsibilities or obligations do you think the Israelites anticipated that God would be placing upon them?

(ט) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י בָּ֣א אֵלֶיךָ֮ בְּעַ֣ב הֶֽעָנָן֒ בַּעֲב֞וּר יִשְׁמַ֤ע הָעָם֙ בְּדַבְּרִ֣י עִמָּ֔ךְ וְגַם־בְּךָ֖ יַאֲמִ֣ינוּ לְעוֹלָ֑ם וַיַּגֵּ֥ד מֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶת־דִּבְרֵ֥י הָעָ֖ם אֶל־ה'׃ (י) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁה֙ לֵ֣ךְ אֶל־הָעָ֔ם וְקִדַּשְׁתָּ֥ם הַיּ֖וֹם וּמָחָ֑ר וְכִבְּס֖וּ שִׂמְלֹתָֽם׃ (יא) וְהָי֥וּ נְכֹנִ֖ים לַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֑י כִּ֣י ׀ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י יֵרֵ֧ד ה' לְעֵינֵ֥י כָל־הָעָ֖ם עַל־הַ֥ר סִינָֽי׃
(9) And the LORD said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” Then Moses reported the people’s words to the LORD, (10) and the LORD said to Moses, “Go to the people and warn them to stay pure today and tomorrow. Let them wash their clothes. (11) Let them be ready for the third day; for on the third day the LORD will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai.

Pleased with the nation's declaration, God is ready to move forward. All the people are to be prepared to encounter God. But already in this introduction, we notice some ambiguity. "I will come to you...in order that the people may hear when I speak with you." "On the third day the LORD will come down in the sight of all the people".

Will this revelatory experience be visual or auditory?

Questions to ponder:

1) How would the experience of receiving Torah audibly differ from the experience of receiving Torah visually?

2) Which sense (seeing or hearing) do you think would provide for a more powerful experience of revelation?

(טז) וַיְהִי֩ בַיּ֨וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֜י בִּֽהְיֹ֣ת הַבֹּ֗קֶר וַיְהִי֩ קֹלֹ֨ת וּבְרָקִ֜ים וְעָנָ֤ן כָּבֵד֙ עַל־הָהָ֔ר וְקֹ֥ל שֹׁפָ֖ר חָזָ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כָּל־הָעָ֖ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בַּֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃ (יז) וַיּוֹצֵ֨א מֹשֶׁ֧ה אֶת־הָעָ֛ם לִקְרַ֥את הָֽאֱלֹקִ֖ים מִן־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה וַיִּֽתְיַצְּב֖וּ בְּתַחְתִּ֥ית הָהָֽר׃ (יח) וְהַ֤ר סִינַי֙ עָשַׁ֣ן כֻּלּ֔וֹ מִ֠פְּנֵי אֲשֶׁ֨ר יָרַ֥ד עָלָ֛יו ה' בָּאֵ֑שׁ וַיַּ֤עַל עֲשָׁנוֹ֙ כְּעֶ֣שֶׁן הַכִּבְשָׁ֔ן וַיֶּחֱרַ֥ד כָּל־הָהָ֖ר מְאֹֽד׃ (יט) וַיְהִי֙ ק֣וֹל הַשּׁוֹפָ֔ר הוֹלֵ֖ךְ וְחָזֵ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד מֹשֶׁ֣ה יְדַבֵּ֔ר וְהָאֱלֹקִ֖ים יַעֲנֶ֥נּוּ בְקֽוֹל׃ (כ) וַיֵּ֧רֶד ה' עַל־הַ֥ר סִינַ֖י אֶל־רֹ֣אשׁ הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקְרָ֨א ה' לְמֹשֶׁ֛ה אֶל־רֹ֥אשׁ הָהָ֖ר וַיַּ֥עַל מֹשֶֽׁה׃
(16) On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. (17) Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. (18) Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the LORD had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. (19) The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. (20) The LORD came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up.

In this opening to the story of revelation, we begin to experience the sensory overload that we have in store. We can imagine how all our senses are in overdrive. There is so much going on that it is hard to comprehend: lighting, smoke, thunder, shofar blasts, a trembling mountain. It is clear that what we are about to experience will be beyond comparison, dramatically different from any previous encounters with nature. And this is being said of a nation that just witnessed the splitting of the sea! What follows this scene in the text is the Ten Commandments. Rather than paying close attention to the content of revelation, however, we are going to look at the mode of revelation.

Questions to ponder:

1)Is it possible to transmit content, such as laws, in a manner that simultaneously utilizes multiple senses?

2) The experience of revelation is intended to stay with us for all time. How could God create a multi-sensory experience of revelation, if what we are intended to receive is a series of laws?

Section 2: The Experience of Revelation

(טו) וְכָל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם וְאֵת֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר וְאֶת־הָהָ֖ר עָשֵׁ֑ן וַיַּ֤רְא הָעָם֙ וַיָּנֻ֔עוּ וַיַּֽעַמְד֖וּ מֵֽרָחֹֽק׃ (טז) וַיֹּֽאמְרוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה דַּבֵּר־אַתָּ֥ה עִמָּ֖נוּ וְנִשְׁמָ֑עָה וְאַל־יְדַבֵּ֥ר עִמָּ֛נוּ אֱלֹקִ֖ים פֶּן־נָמֽוּת׃

(15) All the people saw the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. (16) “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”

Once again, we find the nation speaking in a single voice, but now the tone is quite different. The same nation that so recently was anxiously anticipating their entry into a covenant with God now seems terrified. "You speak to us and we will obey; but let God not speak with us, lest we die." How did their excitement turn so dramatically into terror at the thought of encountering God again? The text gives us a hint. "All the people saw the thunder and the lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking." What the people experienced was not just sensory overload but sensory confusion. They were experiencing the world in a way unlike anything they had encountered previously. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 88b elaborates on the explosion of sensory inputs accompanying God's revelation to humanity:

ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי מאי דכתיב לחיו כערוגת הבשם כל דיבור ודיבור שיצא מפי הקדוש ברוך הוא נתמלא כל העולם כולו בשמים וכיון שמדיבור ראשון נתמלא דיבור שני להיכן הלך הוציא הקדוש ברוך הוא הרוח מאוצרותיו והיה מעביר ראשון ראשון שנאמר שפתותיו שושנים נוטפות מור עבר אל תקרי שושנים אלא ששונים: ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי כל דיבור ודיבור שיצא מפי הקדוש ברוך הוא יצתה נשמתן של ישראל שנאמר נפשי יצאה בדברו ומאחר שמדיבור ראשון יצתה נשמתן דיבור שני היאך קיבלו הוריד טל שעתיד להחיות בו מתים והחיה אותם שנאמר גשם נדבות תניף אלקים נחלתך ונלאה אתה כוננתה ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי כל דיבור ודיבור שיצא מפי הקדוש ברוך הוא חזרו ישראל לאחוריהן שנים עשר מיל והיו מלאכי השרת מדדין אותן שנאמר מלאכי צבאות ידדון ידדון אל תיקרי ידדון אלא ידדון:

And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “His cheeks are as a bed of spices..." (Song of Songs 5:13)? From each and every utterance that emerged from His cheeks, i.e., the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, the entire world was filled with fragrant spices. And since the world was already filled by the first utterance, where was there room for the spices of the second utterance to go? The Holy One, Blessed be He, brought forth wind from His treasuries and made the spices pass one at a time, leaving room for the consequences of the next utterance.

And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: From each and every utterance that emerged from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, the souls of the Jewish people left their bodies... And since their souls left their bodies from the first utterance, how did they receive the second utterance? Rather, God rained the dew upon them that, in the future, will revive the dead, and He revived them...

And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: With each and every utterance that emerged from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, the Jewish people retreated in fear twelve mil, and the ministering angels walked them back toward the mountain...

No wonder the nation was afraid of entering into relationship with God! Each of these statements of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi adds to the picture laid out in the text of the Torah. First, we learn that the experience of revelation engaged not only their eyes and ears, but their noses as well! Second, we learn that the experience of each "dibbur", or utterance, was sufficient to cause the people's souls to leave their bodies. And third, we learn that our ancestors tried continually to run away, but were brought back again and again to experience the terrifying experience anew. After ten such re-enactments of the scene, who can blame them for desiring a little distance from God!? All of which brings us to a few fundamental questions to guide our understanding of the story:

Questions to ponder:

1) What was God trying to accomplish with this multi-sensory experience of revelation?

2) Why design an experience so far beyond the human capacity for comprehension?

"וכל העם רואים את הקולות" – רואין הנראה ושומעין הנשמע, דברי ר' ישמעאל. רבי עקיבא אומר: רואין ושומעין הנראה, רואין דבר של אש יוצא מפי הגבורה ונחצב על הלוחות, שנאמר (תהלים כט) "קול ה' חוצב להבות אש":

"And all the people saw the sounds and the lightnings": They saw what was visible and heard what was audible. These are the words of Rabbi Yishmael. Rabbi Akiva says: They saw and heard that which was visible. They saw the fiery word coming out from the mouth of the Omnipotent as it was inscribed on the tablets, as it is written (Psalms 29:7) "The voice of the Lord hews (with) flames of fire."

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב בשעה שעלה משה למרום מצאו להקב"ה שיושב וקושר כתרים לאותיות אמר לפניו רבש"ע מי מעכב על ידך אמר לו אדם אחד יש שעתיד להיות בסוף כמה דורות ועקיבא בן יוסף שמו שעתיד לדרוש על כל קוץ וקוץ תילין תילין של הלכות אמר לפניו רבש"ע הראהו לי אמר לו חזור לאחורך הלך וישב בסוף שמונה שורות ולא היה יודע מה הן אומרים תשש כחו כיון שהגיע לדבר אחד אמרו לו תלמידיו רבי מנין לך אמר להן הלכה למשה מסיני נתיישבה דעתו
§ Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: When Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, sitting and tying crowns on the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, who is preventing You from giving the Torah without these additions? God said to him: There is a man who is destined to be born after several generations, and Akiva ben Yosef is his name; he is destined to derive from each and every thorn of these crowns mounds upon mounds of halakhot. It is for his sake that the crowns must be added to the letters of the Torah. Moses said before God: Master of the Universe, show him to me. God said to him: Return behind you. Moses went and sat at the end of the eighth row in Rabbi Akiva’s study hall and did not understand what they were saying. Moses’ strength waned, as he thought his Torah knowledge was deficient. When Rabbi Akiva arrived at the discussion of one matter, his students said to him: My teacher, from where do you derive this? Rabbi Akiva said to them: It is a halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai. When Moses heard this, his mind was put at ease, as this too was part of the Torah that he was to receive.

These two sources, both revolving around the character of Rabbi Akiva, begin to help us crack the code. The overpowering nature of the experience of revelation was intentional. The experience of revelation far exceeded what the human beings experiencing it were capable of comprehending because this revelation was not intended for them alone. In this moment, divine secrets that would take centuries, even millenia, to begin to understand were all etched in stone in the presence of our ancestors. Not even Moses, the greatest prophet our people has ever known, was capable of understanding all that was conveyed during these moments of revelation. And yet, all of the work of future generations to uncover God's will can trace its roots back to the moment when God chose to reveal the Torah to our ancestors.

Questions to ponder:

1) Rabbi Yishmael believes that revelation engaged both our eyes and our ears, whereas Rabbi Akiva understand revelation to be a primarily visual experience. How do you think this difference might impact their understandings of the purpose of revelation?

2) What are some of the major differences between learning information visually and learning it audibly?

Section 3: The Aftermath of Revelation

After an interlude filled with laws, our story returns to the people's experience of revelation in chapter 24. As we read this text, pay attention to the differences between the auditory experience of revelation (what they hear, through their requested intermediary Moses) and the visual experience (what they see, when they look up at the mountain).

(ג) וַיָּבֹ֣א מֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיְסַפֵּ֤ר לָעָם֙ אֵ֚ת כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֣י ה' וְאֵ֖ת כָּל־הַמִּשְׁפָּטִ֑ים וַיַּ֨עַן כָּל־הָעָ֜ם ק֤וֹל אֶחָד֙ וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה' נַעֲשֶֽׂה׃ (ד) וַיִּכְתֹּ֣ב מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֵ֚ת כָּל־דִּבְרֵ֣י ה' וַיַּשְׁכֵּ֣ם בַּבֹּ֔קֶר וַיִּ֥בֶן מִזְבֵּ֖חַ תַּ֣חַת הָהָ֑ר וּשְׁתֵּ֤ים עֶשְׂרֵה֙ מַצֵּבָ֔ה לִשְׁנֵ֥ים עָשָׂ֖ר שִׁבְטֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃... (ז) וַיִּקַּח֙ סֵ֣פֶר הַבְּרִ֔ית וַיִּקְרָ֖א בְּאָזְנֵ֣י הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֹּ֛ל אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר ה' נַעֲשֶׂ֥ה וְנִשְׁמָֽע׃ (ח) וַיִּקַּ֤ח מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶת־הַדָּ֔ם וַיִּזְרֹ֖ק עַל־הָעָ֑ם וַיֹּ֗אמֶר הִנֵּ֤ה דַֽם־הַבְּרִית֙ אֲשֶׁ֨ר כָּרַ֤ת ה' עִמָּכֶ֔ם עַ֥ל כָּל־הַדְּבָרִ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃ (ט) וַיַּ֥עַל מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹ֑ן נָדָב֙ וַאֲבִיה֔וּא וְשִׁבְעִ֖ים מִזִּקְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (י) וַיִּרְא֕וּ אֵ֖ת אֱלֹקֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְתַ֣חַת רַגְלָ֗יו כְּמַעֲשֵׂה֙ לִבְנַ֣ת הַסַּפִּ֔יר וּכְעֶ֥צֶם הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם לָטֹֽהַר׃ (יא) וְאֶל־אֲצִילֵי֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל לֹ֥א שָׁלַ֖ח יָד֑וֹ וַֽיֶּחֱזוּ֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֱלֹקִ֔ים וַיֹּאכְל֖וּ וַיִּשְׁתּֽוּ׃ (ס) (יב) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר ה' אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה עֲלֵ֥ה אֵלַ֛י הָהָ֖רָה וֶהְיֵה־שָׁ֑ם וְאֶתְּנָ֨ה לְךָ֜ אֶת־לֻחֹ֣ת הָאֶ֗בֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה֙ וְהַמִּצְוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּתַ֖בְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָֽם׃ (יג) וַיָּ֣קָם מֹשֶׁ֔ה וִיהוֹשֻׁ֖עַ מְשָׁרְת֑וֹ וַיַּ֥עַל מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶל־הַ֥ר הָאֱלֹקִֽים׃ (יד) וְאֶל־הַזְּקֵנִ֤ים אָמַר֙ שְׁבוּ־לָ֣נוּ בָזֶ֔ה עַ֥ד אֲשֶׁר־נָשׁ֖וּב אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם וְהִנֵּ֨ה אַהֲרֹ֤ן וְחוּר֙ עִמָּכֶ֔ם מִי־בַ֥עַל דְּבָרִ֖ים יִגַּ֥שׁ אֲלֵהֶֽם׃ (טו) וַיַּ֥עַל מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶל־הָהָ֑ר וַיְכַ֥ס הֶעָנָ֖ן אֶת־הָהָֽר׃ (טז) וַיִּשְׁכֹּ֤ן כְּבוֹד־ה' עַל־הַ֣ר סִינַ֔י וַיְכַסֵּ֥הוּ הֶעָנָ֖ן שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֛ה בַּיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י מִתּ֥וֹךְ הֶעָנָֽן׃ (יז) וּמַרְאֵה֙ כְּב֣וֹד ה' כְּאֵ֥שׁ אֹכֶ֖לֶת בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הָהָ֑ר לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃ (יח) וַיָּבֹ֥א מֹשֶׁ֛ה בְּת֥וֹךְ הֶעָנָ֖ן וַיַּ֣עַל אֶל־הָהָ֑ר וַיְהִ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ בָּהָ֔ר אַרְבָּעִ֣ים י֔וֹם וְאַרְבָּעִ֖ים לָֽיְלָה׃ (פ)

(3) Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the LORD and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the LORD has commanded we will do!” (4) Moses then wrote down all the commands of the LORD. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel... (7) Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will faithfully do!” (8) Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD now makes with you concerning all these commands.” (9) Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; (10) and they saw the God of Israel: under His feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. (11) Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank. (12) The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them.” (13) So Moses and his attendant Joshua arose, and Moses ascended the mountain of God. (14) To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us until we return to you. You have Aaron and Hur with you; let anyone who has a legal matter approach them.” (15) When Moses had ascended the mountain, the cloud covered the mountain. (16) The Presence of the LORD abode on Mount Sinai, and the cloud hid it for six days. On the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. (17) Now the Presence of the LORD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. (18) Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.

Moses comes down and repeats all that he heard from God. Everybody appears to be on the same page, and excitedly declare that "All that God has said we will do and we will learn". The auditory experience here seems pretty straightforward.

The visual experience, however, is anything but straightforward. Three times in this passage we read about the sight on the top of the mountain, where God's presence is at rest. It's a cloud! No, it's a consuming fire! No, it's a floor of sapphire underneath a throne!

Each of these visions is dramatically different. These distinctions are the result of a fundamental difference in the nature of these encounters. The auditory experience here is mediated. Moses, as the intermediary, is passing along words heard from God. When Moses repeats these words, everyone hears the same thing. While we know that our powers of hearing are imperfect, as anyone who has played a game of "telephone" can attest, we are all fundamentally hearing the same thing. We are hearing words, transmitted through an intermediary.

The visual encounter is, by nature, unmediated. There is no way for Moses to serve as an intermediary when it comes to sight, because the eyes internalize, and then make sense of, whatever they see in front of them. Every time people try to glimpse God, they see something different, as God is beyond human comprehension. While the auditory experience of revelation can be mediated into words that the people can understand, the visual experience is unable to be limited in this manner.

There is a tension between the eyes and the ears, one that will never be resolved. While the words of revelation can be passed down orally from one generation to the next, each generation will approach the Torah from their own "perspective", with a fresh set of eyes. As a result, while the words might continue to pass from one generation to the next unchanged, their understanding shifts in each generation.

This tension is explored in a beautiful passage from Tractate Chagigah. The dispute can be dated to the end of the 1st century C.E, soon after the destruction of the Second Temple. The protagonists, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, are two of the leading sages of this generation, men who lived through the destruction of the Temple and are tasked with rebuilding Judaism in the absence of its physical focal point, the place where God's presence dwells.

Questions to ponder:

1) What are Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua really arguing about?

2) Note all of the references to vision and audition. What message is being communicated through the symbolic use of these senses?

ת"ר מעשה ברבי יוחנן בן ברוקה ורבי אלעזר (בן) חסמא שהלכו להקביל פני ר' יהושע בפקיעין אמר להם מה חידוש היה בבית המדרש היום אמרו לו תלמידיך אנו ומימיך אנו שותין אמר להם אף על פי כן אי אפשר לבית המדרש בלא חידוש שבת של מי היתה שבת של ר' אלעזר בן עזריה היתה ובמה היתה הגדה היום אמרו לו בפרשת הקהל ומה דרש בה (דברים לא, יב) הקהל את העם האנשים והנשים והטף אם אנשים באים ללמוד נשים באות לשמוע טף למה באין כדי ליתן שכר למביאיהן אמר להם מרגלית טובה היתה בידכם ובקשתם לאבדה ממני
§ The Sages taught: There was an incident involving Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Elazar ben Ḥisma, when they went to greet Rabbi Yehoshua in Peki’in. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: What novel idea was taught today in the study hall? They said to him: We are your students and we drink from your water, i.e., all of our Torah knowledge comes from you, and therefore how can we tell you something you have not already learned? He said to them: Even so, there cannot be a study hall without a novelty. He asked them: Whose week was it, i.e. who was the lecturer this week? They said to him: It was Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya’s week. He inquired: And on what subject was the lecture today? They said to him: He spoke about the portion of the mitzva of assembly. Rabbi Yehoshua persisted: And what verse did he interpret homiletically with regard to this mitzva? They said to him that Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya interpreted the following verse: “Assemble the people, the men and the women and the little ones” (Deuteronomy 31:12). This verse is puzzling: If men come to learn, and women, who might not understand, come at least to hear, why do the little ones come? They come in order for God to give a reward to those who bring them, i.e., God credits those who bring their children to the assembly. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: This good pearl of wisdom was in your hands, and you tried to conceal it from me?

ולימרו ליה בהדיא משום מעשה שהיה דתניא מעשה בר' יוסי בן דורמסקית שהלך להקביל פני ר' אלעזר בלוד אמר לו מה חידוש היה בבהמ"ד היום א"ל נמנו וגמרו עמון ומואב מעשרין מעשר עני בשביעית אמר לו יוסי פשוט ידיך וקבל עיניך פשט ידיו וקבל עיניו בכה ר' אלעזר ואמר (תהלים כה, יד) סוד ה' ליראיו ובריתו להודיעם אמר לו לך אמור להם אל תחושו למניינכם כך מקובלני מרבן יוחנן בן זכאי ששמע מרבו ורבו מרבו הלכתא למשה מסיני עמון ומואב מעשרין מעשר עני בשביעית... תנא לאחר שנתיישבה דעתו אמר יהי רצון שיחזרו עיני יוסי למקומן וחזרו

The Gemara asks: But Rabbi Yoḥanan ben Beroka and Rabbi Elazar ben Ḥisma should have told Rabbi Yehoshua these statements of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya directly, without delay. Why did they hesitate at first? The Gemara answers: They were hesitant due to an incident that occurred. As it is taught in a baraita: There was an incident involving Rabbi Yosei ben Durmaskit, who went to greet Rabbi Eliezer in Lod. Rabbi Eliezar said to him: What novel idea was taught today in the study hall? Rabbi Yosei ben Durmaskit said to him: The Sages assembled, counted the votes, and concluded that although the lands of Ammon and Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan River are not part of Eretz Yisrael, one separates the poor man’s tithe there in the Sabbatical Year. Rabbi Eliezar said to him in anger: Yosei, extend your hands and catch your eyes. He extended his hands and caught his eyes. Rabbi Elazar wept and said the verse: “The counsel of the Lord is with them who fear Him; and His covenant, to make them know it” (Psalms 25:14), i.e., the Sages arrived at the correct conclusion, although they were unaware of the proper rationale behind it.

Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Yosei to go and say to the Sages in the study hall: Your counting means nothing! This is the tradition that I received from Rabban Yoḥanan ben Zakkai, who heard from his teacher, and his teacher from his teacher: It is a halakha transmitted to Moses from Sinai that in Ammon and Moab one separates the poor man’s tithe in the Sabbatical Year. It was taught that after Rabbi Elazar’s mind was put at ease, he said: May it be God’s will that Rabbi Yosei’s eyes should return to their place. And indeed his eyes returned.

The debate between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer is about the role that "chiddush", innovation, should play in Jewish life. Rabbi Yehoshua, emphasizing the importance of chiddush (אי אפשר לבית המדרש בלא חידוש, it is impossible to have a study hall without innovation), accuses his reluctant students of trying to hide a beautiful pearl from his sight. In contrast, Rabbi Eliezer physically removes his student's eyes so that he will appreciate the importance of his ears, of receiving a transmitted tradition. It is only once his students eyes are removed, and Rabbi Eliezer impresses upon him the importance of audition, of receiving tradition rather than exploring new perspectives, that Rabbi Eliezer allows his student's eyes to return to his head.

Questions to ponder:

Who is right? Which should be weighed more heavily, receiving transmitted traditions or examining the Torah with our unique perspectives?

Is there an effective way to balance between these two positions?

Conclusion: The Balancing Act of Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya

The positions of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer represent the competing poles in the Jewish discourse. Faced with a fundamentally new reality after the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yehoshua encourages the flourishing of new ideas. Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, believes that the best approach is to hold on with all our might to the inherited traditions of our past. How are we to balance the two? An approach is presented by Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya in the narrative which falls between the stories of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer. Just as in real life, in the arrangement of this section of the Talmud, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer represent the outer boundaries of the discourse. Let's explore the middle approach desired by Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, a younger contemporary of these two leading scholars. As you read, consider how the different theoretical challenges that he raises and resolves in the first section of this text map onto the positions of Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Eliezer.

ואף הוא פתח ודרש (קהלת יב, יא) דברי חכמים כדרבונות וכמסמרות נטועים בעלי אסופות נתנו מרועה אחד למה נמשלו דברי תורה לדרבן לומר לך מה דרבן זה מכוין את הפרה לתלמיה להוציא חיים לעולם אף דברי תורה מכוונין את לומדיהן מדרכי מיתה לדרכי חיים אי מה דרבן זה מטלטל אף דברי תורה מטלטלין ת"ל מסמרות אי מה מסמר זה חסר ולא יתר אף דברי תורה חסירין ולא יתירין ת"ל נטועים מה נטיעה זו פרה ורבה אף דברי תורה פרין ורבין

בעלי אסופות אלו תלמידי חכמים שיושבין אסופות אסופות ועוסקין בתורה הללו מטמאין והללו מטהרין הללו אוסרין והללו מתירין הללו פוסלין והללו מכשירין שמא יאמר אדם היאך אני למד תורה מעתה תלמוד לומר כולם נתנו מרועה אחד אל אחד נתנן פרנס אחד אמרן מפי אדון כל המעשים ברוך הוא דכתיב (שמות כ, א) וידבר אלקים את כל הדברים האלה אף אתה עשה אזניך כאפרכסת וקנה לך לב מבין לשמוע את דברי מטמאים ואת דברי מטהרים את דברי אוסרין ואת דברי מתירין את דברי פוסלין ואת דברי מכשירין בלשון הזה אמר להם אין דור יתום שר' אלעזר בן עזריה שרוי בתוכו

The Gemara adds: And Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya also commenced his lecture and taught: It is written: “The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails well fastened are those that are composed in collections; they are given from one shepherd” (Ecclesiastes 12:11). Why are matters of Torah compared to a goad? To tell you that just as this goad directs the cow to her furrow to bring forth sustenance for life to the world, so too the words of Torah direct those who study them from the paths of death to the paths of life. The Gemara asks: If so, derive the following from that same analogy: Just as this goad is movable and not rigid, so too matters of Torah are movable in accordance with circumstance and are not permanent. Therefore, the verse states: “Nails,” which are permanent. The Gemara further asks: If so, one can explain as follows: Just as this nail is diminished in size and does not expand, as it wastes away over time, so too matters of Torah are gradually diminished and do not expand. Therefore, the verse states: “Well fastened [netuim].” Just as this plant [neti’a] flourishes and multiplies, so too matters of Torah flourish and multiply.

“Those that are composed in collections [ba’alei asufot]”: These are Torah scholars who sit in many groups [asupot] and engage in Torah study. There are often debates among these groups, as some of these Sages render an object or person ritually impure and these render it pure; these prohibit an action and these permit it; these deem an item invalid and these deem it valid. Lest a person say: Now, how can I study Torah when it contains so many different opinions? The verse states that they are all “given from one shepherd.” One God gave them; one leader, i.e., Moses, said them from the mouth of the Master of all creation, Blessed be He, as it is written: “And God spoke all these words” (Exodus 20:1). The plural form “words” indicates that God transmitted all the interpretations of the Ten Commandments. Since the Sages invariably utilize the Torah itself or the statements of the prophets as the sources for their opinions, there is a certain unity to the study of Torah, despite the numerous explanations and applications. So too you, the student, make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear both the statements of those who render objects ritually impure and the statements of those who render them pure; the statements of those who prohibit actions and the statements of those who permit them; the statements of those who deem items invalid and the statements of those who deem them valid. When Rabbi Yehoshua heard these interpretations, he said to them in these words: No generation is considered orphaned, i.e. without a leader, if Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya dwells among it.

Concluding question:

Which side of the balance beam do you find yourself naturally favoring? How might you balance your Torah engagement between your "eyes" and "ears" in the year ahead?