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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

Tradition in transition

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They say adapt or die. But must we jettison the old to embrace the new? Is the choice limited to modern or antiquated, or can one be a contemporary traditionalist?

At the beginning of this week’s parshah, we read that Moses was occupied with a special mission as the Jews were leaving Egypt. Moses took the bones of Joseph with him. Long before the great exodus, Joseph had made the Children of Israel swear that they would take him along when they eventually left Egypt. As viceroy of Egypt, Joseph couldn’t hope to be buried in Israel when he died as his father, Jacob, was. The Egyptians would never tolerate their political leader being buried in a foreign land. But he did have his brethren make a solemn undertaking that when the time came and the Israelites departed, they would take his remains along with them.

Now, Joseph wasn’t the only one to be re-interred in the holy land. His brothers, too, were accorded the same honour and last respects. Yet, it’s only Joseph whom the Torah finds it necessary to mention explicitly. Why?

The answer is that Joseph was unique. While his brothers were simple shepherds tending to their flocks, Joseph was running the superpower of the world. To be a practicing Jew while blissfully strolling through the meadows isn’t that complicated. But to serve as the most high-profile statesman in the land and remain faithful to one’s traditions – this is inspirational!

Thrust as he was from the simple life of a young shepherd boy into the hub of the nation’s capital to juggle the roles of viceroy and Jew, Joseph represented tradition amidst transition. It was possible, he taught the world, to be a contemporary traditionalist. One could successfully straddle both worlds.

Now that they were about to leave Egypt, the Jews were facing a new world order. Gone were slavery and oppression and in their place came freedom and liberty. During this time of transition, only Joseph could be their role model. He alone could show them the way forward into the new frontier.

Ever since leaving Egypt, we’ve been wandering Jews. And every move has come with its own challenges. Whether from Poland to America or Lithuania to South Africa, every transition brought culture shocks to our spiritual psyche. How do you make a living and still keep the Shabbos you kept in the shtetl when the factory boss says, “Cohen, if you don’t come in on Saturday, don’t come in on Monday either!” It was a test of faith that wasn’t easy. Many succumbed. But many others stood fast and survived, even flourished. It was the test of transition – and those who modelled themselves on Joseph were able to make the transition while remaining committed to tradition.

Democracy and a human-rights culture have made that part of Jewish life somewhat easier for us, but challenges still abound. May we continue to learn from Joseph.

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Religion

The key to unlocking blessings

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What’s the key to the blessings we need from Hashem? One such approach is hinted at in the opening words of this week’s portion, “Vayigash eilav Yehudah”, “and Yehudah approach him” or more accurately, “And approached him Yehudah”.

Contained in these three words are a hidden message. The verse merely says “him” (without specifying a name) and consequently, we can see a deeper hint here. “Him” can allude to the true Him – Hashem. So the verse reads, “And approached Him [Hashem] Yehudah.” What does Yehudah mean? The name comes from the root word “Hoda’ah” (gratitude).

Thus, we uncover a secret in this verse: how do we approach Hashem to bring down the blessings we need? “Approached Him [Hashem] with gratitude [yehudah-hoda’ah].”

We often focus on what we lack, and appeal to Hashem from that consciousness to fulfil our needs. Yes, we must ask for our needs to be fulfilled by Hashem, but what’s the posture or position most effective in approaching Hashem? This verse alludes to approaching through gratitude. By acknowledging and appreciating the many things we are blessed with, we create a channel for even more blessings.

Rabbi Moshe Schnerb recently told a story on ChaiFM that illustrates this. A family of many children had successfully been able to find marriage partners for all their children yet for some reason, was unsuccessful with one daughter in spite of the fact that she was full of chein (grace) and beauty and was certainly eligible. In spite of many attempts, there was no success. Repeated disappointment and heartache caused concern and frustration. The parents davened and prayed, asking Hashem “Why, why” she wasn’t finding her bashert (soulmate). Their mood was bleak.

Soon afterwards, the girl met another candidate, everything seemed to be going well, and the good news was expected. At the 11th hour, however, the matchmaker called the parents with a heavy heart saying that the potential chosson (groom) had decided to turn the marriage down. The girl and her parents were devastated.

The father turned to his wife and said, “We must be doing something wrong. Look at us, so blessed with children all happily settled with families and health yet all we are focusing on is what we don’t have – our daughter’s success in finding her match! From now on, we approach it differently – with gratitude. We thank Hashem for all we have been blessed with. That’s our stance!”

Rabbi Schnerb continued that within an hour, the phone rang and the matchmaker said in excitement and disbelief, “I have no idea what happened, but the family called me back to stress that they definitely wanted to pursue the arrangement and didn’t want to lose this special girl.”

The change in focus to gratitude opened the gates of heaven, and the brocha flowed.

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Religion

A shining light

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I’m writing this only hours after watching the online kindling of the Menorah at the Kotel on the second night of Chanukah, which was dedicated in memory of Eli Kay z”l (who was killed in a terrorist attack near the Kotel on 21 November), and which has inspired what follows below.

The shamash (the attendant candle) on the chanukiah is not included in the mitzvah candles. Yet, without it there can be no light. It’s the enabler that creates the environment for mitzvah performance. Like the shamash, Eli brought so much light to those around him with grace and humility. King Solomon wrote, “the candle of G-d is the soul of man”. Within each of us is a divine spark, which connects us to Hashem and which, importantly, allows us to ignite and inspire others. By sharing his flame so magnanimously and selflessly, Eli was able to bring the light of others to the fore.

This “shamash effect” did not cease upon Eli’s passing. If anything, it only intensified. Eli’s passing has been the catalyst for the performance of mitzvot worldwide, whether it be a commitment to wearing tefillin, or the lighting of Shabbat and Chanukah candles. People have rededicated themselves to their Judaism in a powerful and tangible way. And surely this is what Chanukah is all about. More than merely commemorating a great miracle and the rededication of the holy Temple (from which the holiday gets its name), Chanukah affords us the opportunity each year to rededicate ourselves to our Judaism and to commit once again to our relationship with Hashem.

Pirsumei nisa (publicising the miracle) is an important element of the mitzvah of lighting the menorah. It’s for this reason that we place the chanukiah in the window or in a public place. We want the light of Chanukah to be visible to all.

Publicity, though, it’s not something we’re all necessarily comfortable with. We may feel an internal connection with Hashem and with our Judaism, but do we openly and proudly display it?

Eli had no such problem. Eli was a proud Jew and a proud Zionist. He was not just a Jew at heart or an idealistic Zionist. He directed his feelings to action.

This year, when the world seems so dark to so many, let’s try to emulate the shamash candle. Let’s emulate Eli. Let’s be the light unto the nations – starting with our own nation. Let’s help those around us to rediscover their light. Let’s stand tall and proud. Let’s ensure that our fresh commitment to mitzvot endures.

May the memory of Eli continue to be a guiding light to us all.

Chanukah Sameach.

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