Yitro: Listening for the Aleph

Anochi YHVH Elohecha asher hotzeiticha me’eretz Mitzrayim mi’beit avadim.

I am Life Unfolding who brought you out of constriction and enslavement. (Exodus 20:2)

I have the incredible good fortune this month to be writing to you from New Zealand. I have never been here before and am thrilled to have this opportunity to teach and explore. Native New Zealander and good friend of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation Linda Kaye has gone to great lengths to arrange for my visit here, and I am profoundly grateful. At this moment I am sitting in her lovely cottage on a rainy day in the remote north of New Zealand. It is summer here, and I look out over a beautiful river and green hills. No complaints, just gratitude! I plan to write more about my surroundings, and look forward to sharing a travelogue with you in a few days.

This coming Shabbat I am leading a retreat that Linda has organized entitled “Listening for the Aleph.” The retreat coincides with Parshat Yitro, Exodus chapters 18-20, in which the Children of Israel arrive at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, after careful preparations, they hear the voice of God and receive what are known in English as the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew term, however, is not Aseret Hamitzvot – mitzvot meaning “commandments.” In Jewish tradition the words at Mt. Sinai are known as Aseret Hadibrot, “The Ten Utterances”.

In all of the Torah, this is the moment when the entire People are addressed directly by God, rather than through God’s messenger Moses. Therefore these words are elevated to a special status: they are God’s utterances, direct from the Source. The Rabbis are fascinated by this unique occurrence, and weave rich images to describe the mystery of an entire people simultaneously hearing God’s voice. Our ancient sages, sophisticated as they were, understood that hearing the voice of God differed radically from hearing a distinct human voice. The Voice of God does not have a precise location, but rather must be everywhere. Within and without, above and below lose all meaning when describing an infinite presence. Therefore the term “revelation” is used for the experience at Mount Sinai: to “reveal” means to “uncover”, to pull back the veil. We usually do not hear God’s voice, enmeshed as we are in our daily concerns. But sometimes the veil is removed, we are called to attention, and God’s voice resonates within and around us. We are changed by these experiences, often profoundly so. What if we were all called to attention at once, as at Mount Sinai? Would we all hear the same thing? The Rabbis are convinced that the answer is “no.” Each person, being him- or herself unique, must hear this “voice” in his or her own unique fashion.

The Rabbis even assert that God, as it were, does not speak in words. They tell the audacious midrash that the voice of God is the silent letter Aleph, the very first letter of the first word of the Ten Utterances, Anochi, “I am.” The voice of God is the sound before sound, the inspiration before thought, and everything else is interpretation. That is why in the Jewish tradition we are constantly asked to hear the words of Torah anew. As human language, they can only point us towards God’s voice. That is what Torah is meant to do. Without our engaged attention to listen for the silent Aleph out of which the Torah emerges, we will only have words on a page. We will not have living Torah, which is the place where we might hear God’s voice.

At the retreat this weekend in New Zealand we will be preparing ourselves as our ancestors did at Mount Sinai to listen for the Aleph, and to discover what is revealed to each of us at this moment in each of our lives. We will share our insights with one another, and thus receive the Torah anew.

I will be repeating this workshop during the Festival of Shavuot this coming May 22-24 at the Lev Shalem Institute of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in Woodstock, New York. Shavuot is the other time during the year when we revisit this moment at Mount Sinai and chant the Ten Utterances. You can sign up by clicking here.

I would like to share with you here my own example of hearing the words of Torah anew. A couple of years ago I decided to write my own “riff” on the Ten Utterances. I sat down with the original text, contemplated my years of engagement with these ancient words, did my best to empty myself of expectation, and wrote. Even though I was sitting in upstate New York at the time, maybe I also got to join the crowd at the foot of the Holy Mountain. It felt that way.

The Ten Utterances from Life Unfolding

  1. I am Life Unfolding who brought you out of constriction and enslavement so that you might serve me and be in relationship to me. No one said this was going to be easy.
  1. Place no gods of your own making in between you and Life Unfolding. Do not make an image or a fixed concept of Life Unfolding and attempt to serve only that fixed concept. Life Unfolding is infinite and ever-expanding and cannot be reduced to a static idea.
  1. You are as good as your word. Beware: if you invoke Life Unfolding as a witness to the truth of your words, you will be held to account for them. Do not overestimate your own power to speak and fulfill.
  1. Make one day out seven holy, a Sabbath, in which you relinquish illusions of control over Creation. Remember on this day that you are creature, not creator, and humbly and joyfully take your place in the chorus of Creation. On this day, you may not lord over any person or creature under your temporary authority. Rather, stand side by side with them in gratitude for Life Unfolding.
  1. Honor your parents, for however imperfectly they fulfilled their task they have been the vessels and agents of My purpose, which was to bring you into the world as a new expression of Life Unfolding.
  1. Do not murder, for every human life is a reflection of infinite possibility, and when you destroy a life you destroy a part of Me, Life Unfolding.
  1. Do not commit adultery, for a marriage is a sacred covenant, and you gave your word. If you are to realize your potential as an agent and partner of Life Unfolding, you must strive to be as good as your word. No one said this was going to be easy.
  1. Do not steal. Treat everyone – and everything – with fundamental respect.
  1. Do not bear false witness against others. When you speak of them, remember that they are children of Life Unfolding and nothing less. Witness them in this light, so that your words may be compassionate and true. Choose your words with great care; they have the power to create and to destroy.
  1. Do not covet. Rather, practice radical gratitude at all times for the gift of Life Unfolding of which you are the beneficiary. This is the key to true liberation. No one said this was going to be easy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan