This week is the 5th Torah portion in the Book of Exodus – Parashat Yitro – in which the Ten Words are uttered, inscribed in the tablets of the law, and brought down from Sinai by the prophet Moses to the people of Israel. As we consider this singular event in the history of Judaism and western religion, it’s worth our while to pause for a moment to consider the nature of the first and most transformative event in Moses’ life.
He was in Midian tending sheep when he came upon a bush that burned unconsumed. The sight of it was so unusual that Moses stopped to ponder the miracle. Then he heard God’s voice charging him to go to Pharaoh and free the Hebrew slaves and take them out of Egypt.
The portion begins by telling us about Jethro, a Midianite Priest and Moses’ father-in law, who rabbinic commentators suggest enjoyed a close mentor/mentee relationship together.
The Torah describes how Jethro taught Moses to govern the people – to delegate and decentralize, to appoint judges and give up control over smaller cases, to allow others to act, judge and lead, to relinquish many of the burdens he carried as prophet, judge, and military chieftain.
Moses did as Jethro advised and we might imagine that Moses became calmer, more intentional and self-reflective. In this relaxed state Moses could heard God’s voice – not as an audible sound but as an intuitive quiet murmuring sound, much like the sound that breath makes as it passes through the lips, like Elijah’s kol d’mama daka, the voice of conscience.
One commentary notes that we can read “Mi chamocha ba-eilim Adonai – Who is like you, Adonai, among the mighty?” another way – as “Mi chamocha ba-ilmim Adonai – Who is like You, Adonai, among the silent ones.”
This reading of the text suggests that Moses entered into a quiet internal dialogue with God!
We don’t know the exact location of the sacred mountain of Sinai, but where ever it was the experience of the divine transformed each individual there and the Jewish people as a whole.
Each time we learn Torah and interact with the sacred text, tradition teaches that we reenact the Sinai experience, that we join our ancestors as our people received Torah. If we listen carefully, perhaps we may be able to hear God’s voice echo from the mountain top through time to us.
To hear, however, we first must rid ourselves of the noise in our lives, pause, and listen. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “Only when we’re able to share in the spirit of awe that fills the world are we able to understand what happened to Israel at Sinai.”
Yitro teaches that the revelation of Torah filled the world with limitless potential for holiness and spiritual uplift.
Tradition teaches that whenever the Ten Words are read, the congregation stands in memory of the experience at Sinai when Moses brought down Torah.