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The (divine) voices inside your head

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Religion

If you tell anyone that you have heard the voice of G-d speaking to you, they might give you the name of a good therapist. But the festival of Shavuot is a celebration of the moment that the entire Jewish nation heard the voice of G-d. Wow! What did that feel like? What did G-d’s voice even sound like?

Reading the account of it in the Torah, it was a pretty overwhelming – even frightening – moment. The Israelites “saw voices”, “heard lightning”, Mt Sinai was all ablaze (a sight that Capetonians got a taste of only a few weeks ago), and a heavenly shofar called from above the mountain.

Some commentators understand that it was so overwhelming, the Israelites fled and heard only the first two commandments – the rest were taught to them by Moses. In fact, one Chassidic master understood that all the Israelites heard was the first letter of the 10 utterances, the letter aleph (Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Rimanov – 1745-1815).

What did that voice sound like? Can you imagine it? Did it sound like James Earl Jones (deep and gravelly)? A whisper? Was it like thunder or wind? When I lived in London in the late 1990s, I was part of the programming team for Limmud UK, and we brought out Rabbi Everett Fox as a presenter. Rabbi Fox is an internationally prominent scholar from Brandeis University in Boston. He had recently published a fantastic new translation and commentary on the Torah, and we were excited to have him at Limmud.

I still remember one of his sessions, which was on the film The Prince of Egypt that had come out that year. It’s a big budget, animated version of the Exodus story made by DreamWorks Animation with A-list movie stars like Helen Mirren, Ralph Fiennes, and Michelle Pfeiffer doing the voiceovers.

What made it newsworthy was that it was the first big Hollywood treatment of the story since the classic 1956 Cecil B. DeMille The Ten Commandments, and Rabbi Fox was one of the consultants to the studio on the project. He showed us clips from the film, and talked us through some of the decisions that the filmmakers had consulted him on when they had to make “theological” statements in their portrayal of events from the Bible.

When we got to the burning bush scene, Rabbi Fox explained that the director had a dilemma. How to portray the voice of G-d? Charlton Heston had famously done the booming voice in 1956, but the director felt that they needed something less gendered and patriarchal in their film. They experimented with a female voice, but it felt too contrived. They tried to mix a male and female voice, but it sounded too weird. Eventually, they used the voice of Val Kilmer, the actor who plays Moses himself, and mixed in the whispered voices of other actors playing his family and friends.

You might say that this is a humanistic take on G-d, and that it implies that it’s just a voice in our head and not divine. But Rabbi Fox taught the text he showed the filmmakers from a rabbi 1 500 years ago in Eretz Yisrael who explained it like this:

“Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘When G-d’s voice came forth, it split into seventy voices in seventy languages, in order that all of the nations would hear it.’ How did the voice go forth? [It came] to every Israelite according to their strength – to the elders, to the young adults, to the minors, to the children, to the women, each according to their strength; even to Moses according to his strength, as it is said, ‘Moses spoke, and G-d answered him with a voice,’ (Exodus 19:19) a voice that Moses could bear. (Sh’mot Rabbah 5:9)”

G-d didn’t shout or boom. G-d used a voice that each could hear in their way.

Why can’t we hear that voice today? Well, many spiritual leaders of many faiths would assure you that you can. And many rabbis would agree. Take the Chassidic master, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, who was asked the following question: “Why is Shavuot called zman matan Torateinu (the time the Torah was given) rather than ‘the time we received the Torah’?” He answered, “The giving took place on one day, but the receiving takes place at all times.”

Yes, the revelation at Sinai was a once-in-history event. We are still learning about and processing what happened and what we can learn from it. For that, we have the Torah and 2 000 years of commentaries from the wisest minds of our people.

And yet, every day, every moment, there is an opportunity to hear that voice anew. And there is none better than the festival of Shavuot when we read, “and G-d spoke”, but the challenge to us is how to hear it.

Some hear it from the heavens, some hear it within, some in the call of the wild, and some in cries for help or justice. Some in the sleeping face of a newborn child or the look of their lover. Wherever you hear it, may you have a chag sameach!

  • Rabbi Greg Alexander is part of the rabbinic team at the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. David Grant

    May 13, 2021 at 5:37 pm

    How beautifully said.

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Religion

Moving from tumah to tahara

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This week’s parsha introduces us to the detrimental spiritual effects of tumat met, the impurity that comes from being in contact with the dead and the requisite process of purification through the mechanics of the sprinkling of the ashes of a red heifer – the para adumah.

Tumah (ritual impurity) is a prevalent topic in the Torah and in many instances, we are warned to distance ourselves from numerous sources of tumah.

But what is it anyway? The English translation does it no justice (as is the case with most English translations of Hebrew concepts).

I have heard rabbis and teachers try and compare tumah to a type of “spiritual radiation”, which can affect anyone who comes close to its source.

Another idea which I read a while ago describes tumah as deviation from an object’s designation, while tahara (the opposite of tumah) is the return or recalibration of an entity to its purpose and goal. For example, a dead animal is by definition tamei (impure) while an animal shechted in accordance with halacha, is tahor (pure), and can be eaten by the holiest and most pure Jew around – apologies to all the vegans out there. A human corpse carries the highest form of tumah, as he can no longer fulfil his purpose in this world, namely living and sanctifying Hashem’s name in the world.

But I think the best explanation is that tumah is the erroneous sensation that Hashem has abandoned us. Hashem is all of reality. (The ineffable name “havaya” talks to this concept.) The truth is that Hashem is always everywhere and intimately involved in our lives. When we perceive and appreciate this, we live on a lofty level of tahara and kedusha. However, when we don’t perceive Hashem’s presence because of a death or being in contact with certain spiritually tainted objects, we are labelled as being tamei.

It’s for this reason that a mourner, someone who by definition came into contact with a relative who passed away and mistakenly felt that Hashem had abandoned him, has to recite kaddish publicly in shul and re-infuse himself with kedusha – sanctity and the realisation that Hashem was always there and would never forsake him.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

Quarrels and Korach

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I remember once being peripherally involved in a community dispute (a rare occurrence in Jewish life to be sure) some years ago. Discontent had been bubbling for a while, but it all boiled over around this time – parshat Korach. As support was being mustered, one party approached me during the week and asked, “Are you with me, or are you with Korach?” About a day later, I was speaking to the other party, who raised the dispute and asked me, “Are you on my side, or that of the other party, who is clearly Korach?”

In the end I was able, more or less, to stay clear of it (thank G-d), but the nature of that interaction is indicative of the challenge of learning the lesson from our parsha generally. Is the lesson that we should be confident in our position, invoking the wrath of G-d to strike down those who are clearly in error since they disagree with us? Obviously not. Is the lesson that there’s no right and wrong, and it all just depends on your perspective? I don’t believe our Torah is compatible with such moral relativism. The parsha can teach us how to engage in such difficult situations through two-fold analysis of a situation, as we can see with the Korach dispute.

First, look at the merits of the arguments raised by each side. Korach is claiming that Moshe has claimed power for himself, without divine mandate, in order to rule over the Jewish people. Moshe is claiming that he has no personal desire for power, he’s simply doing what G-d instructed. We, the astute readers of the Torah, know that Moshe is correct, that in fact, he shunned leadership at the burning bush, and accepted the position only at Hashem’s insistence. Besides, all of the Jewish people have seen that Hashem entrusted Moshe to deliver the ten commandments, and that he succeeded in achieving atonement for us after the sin of the golden calf. Is it more logical that such a man would attempt a power grab, or that the troublesome former slaves needed a leader with a firm hand on the wheel?

Second, look at the approach of each side. Korach begins by wheeling and dealing – mustering support, putting spin on his position, and using soundbites to signal his virtue. Moshe appeals for de-escalation, reaches out to other disputants Datan and Aviram, and asks for trust based on his history of dedication to the people.

Our cognitive biases, particularly what’s known as the “halo effect”, nudge us to prejudge people and situations and to take sides based on who we like better. But, before deciding who is Moshe and who is Korach, we would be well served by applying these parsha lessons.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

How to avoid blindness

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Do you want to preserve your eyesight? Mishna Berura (24,7) quotes an ancient custom that will prevent blindness. Passing the tzitzit over our eyes when reciting the third paragraph of the shema will guarantee that we don’t lose the ability to see. How are we to understand this blessing?

The final passage of this week’s Torah reading teaches us the mitzvah of tzitzit, the fringes we are instructed to attach to the edges of four-cornered garments in order to remember all of Hashem’s commandments. After spelling out the details of the laws of tzitzit, the portion concludes with a seemingly unrelated reminder that Hashem took us out of Egypt.

Egypt is actually the embodiment of the polar opposite of remembering. This was the country that forgot all about Joseph and all the blessings he had brought upon the land, saving them from a certain famine. A generation later, his erstwhile VIP family, who had been invited to settle in Goshen as the king’s preferred subjects, were enslaved and committed to hard labour. This was a blatant display of ingratitude – a total lack of appreciation for Joseph’s contribution.

Instead, the Egyptians turned a blind eye to the plight of the Hebrews around them, never objecting to the injustices decreed upon them by Pharoah. This explains why one of the ten plagues was darkness, a physical manifestation of their ingrate sightlessness. The Hebrew word for this plague is choshech, which is written with the three letters chaf-shin-chet, letters which also spell the words shachach (forgot) and kichesh (denied).

The precept of tzitzit is about remembering – the antithesis of the Egyptians’ behaviour. Hashem took us out of that land, physically and spiritually, removing us from and from us the evil of ungratefulness. The tzitzit, on the contrary, are all about gratitude, a reminder of the 613 commandments given to us after the exodus. (The numerical value of the word tzitzit, 600, added to the number of strings, eight, and knots, five, that make up each of the four fringes, serves as a mnemonic of these obligations.)

Hence, the custom to pass these fringes over our eyes each time we call out the word tzitzit when reading the third paragraph of the shema every morning. This will ensure that we aren’t struck with the blindness of the Egyptians. And, please G-d, the merit of the mitzvah will also preserve our physical eyesight.

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