The Shifting Source

Last Shabbat, we read parashat Yitro, which is the Torah portion in which the Israelites receive the Torah, beginning with the Ten Commandments, at Mount Sinai. The description of the theophany is spectacular:

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. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for GOD had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.

Exodus 19:16-19
The view from Mount Shlomo in the Negev Desert, not Mount Sinai. No one knows where Sinai is.

Can you imagine the scene? The authors of Exodus clearly want us readers to grasp the immensity of the moment, the overwhelmingness of the experience. So much chaos, and out of it so much meaning.

Countless commentators have attempted to make sense of the scene, and last week I discovered one interpretation that helps me imagine being there like no other I’ve encountered:

At Sinai, when the Holy One gave the Torah to Israel, God manifested marvels upon marvels for Israel with God’s voice. How so?

As the Holy One spoke, the voice reverberated throughout the world. At first, Israel heard the voice from the south, so they ran to the south to meet the voice there. It shifted to the north, so they ran to the north. Then it shifted to the east, so they ran to the east; but from the east it shifted to the west, so they ran to the west. Next it shifted to heaven. But when they raised their eyes toward heaven, it seemed to rise out of the earth.

Hence Israel asked one another, “But wisdom, where shall it be found? And where is the place of understanding?” (Job 28:12)

Exodus Rabbah 5:9

I love picturing a mass of people running back and forth, trying to locate the source of revelation. I love the shifting source of the divine voice, as if it is the wind buffeting the people from every direction. I love that the midrash ends not in a solution, but a question, implying that an ultimate source of wisdom cannot be located in one specific spot.

This midrash is an invitation: keep seeking, because we never know where new understanding will originate next.

Last Thursday, I acted out this midrash for the synagogue’s second and third graders. I ran around the chapel, from side to side, calling out the directions the Israelites looked for God. And at the end, I asked them this question: Is God speaking from everywhere, or from nowhere?

The answers were awe inspiring.

Some students said everywhere––after all, God is everywhere! And some students said nowhere, because God isn’t the kind of thing you can “find” in a place. One compared God to air, filling all the space there is.

And one student said the answer is both everywhere and nowhere, since they pretty much mean the same thing when it comes to God. She’s a nascent non-dualist for sure.

Speaking of awe-inspiring things… That same day, it rained torrentially for hours and hours. Within minutes of my time with those students, the rain ended. Apparently others in the area witnessed a perfect, sky-spanning double rainbow. I missed that, but I happened to glance out the window to see sunset illuminating the sky and reflecting off the puddles left by the rain.

Those pictures were taken about three minutes apart. The sun shifted, and the colors shifted with it.

Beauty (and wisdom) depend on so much: the place we are standing, the source of illumination, and the other proximate beings through which the rays are refracted.

Where is the source of understanding? It is shifting all the time.

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