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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

Learning to fall teaches us to fly

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“As an eagle that stirs up its nest, hovering over its young”

Rashi, one of our greatest commentators, explains that Hashem is compared to an eagle since eagles are so different to other birds. He says that they are the kings of all birds, and soar very high. Afraid only of man’s bow and arrow, the eagle carries its young on its back. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, and have no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils and carry their babies underneath them in their talons.

This Rashi is problematic:

Humans carry their babies in their arms. A monkey holds its young in much the same way. And a dog or cat picks up its offspring with its mouth. But what about birds? Do they ever carry their young on their backs?

Surprisingly, some birds do carry their offspring from one place to another, either to get them away from danger or to move them about as part of their daily care. Aquatic birds let their chicks ride on their backs while they are swimming. Sometimes when the parent dives, the little one is carried underwater. And when the parent flies, the chick gets its first taste of being airborne without even using its own wings.

But, eagles? They just don’t do this. So what’s Rashi talking about?

Maybe our translation of nesher is incorrect. There’s the opinion that a nesher is a vulture, but no vultures carry their young on their backs either, so what’s going on? With respect to previous generations in Torah thought, we are never so arrogant as to say that we have superior knowledge. The further we move away from the Sinai experience, the more humble we become regarding the Torah knowledge of previous generations. Rashi lived almost a thousand years ago, and was a giant of Torah. So the best we can do is humbly admit that we don’t understand this Rashi.

One possible answer is brought by Rabbi Slifkin, who explains that when an eagle is teaching its eaglets to fly, it throws them from the nest and dives below to catch them on its back, ensuring that it breaks their fall before it breaks their neck. Perhaps this is what Rashi witnessed and wanted to use to describe Hashem’s relationship with each one of us.

Not only did Hashem take us out of Egypt on the “wings of eagles”, and not only will we be taken to the land of Israel when Moshiach comes on the “wings of eagles”. But every single day, Hashem gentle nudges us out of our comfort zone and while we are flailing and wondering how we’ll cope, Hashem is ready to swoop down and catch us. It’s that fall that teaches us how to soar!

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Religion

Seeing the big, beautiful picture

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This week’s fundraising campaign for Community Security Organisation Medical in Cape Town and Hatzolah in Johannesburg beautifully replaces our obsession with daily infection statistics, hospital occupancies, and rates of transmission with awareness of (and gratitude for) the number of lives saved, families cared for, and thousands vaccinated in protection against the virus.

However, once you’ve made your generous contribution, that nagging feeling comes back: how many deaths in our community this year? What are the global and local statistics of antisemitism and crime? How bad is emigration from South Africa? Are there any young people excited about future – or even present – Jewish life in South Africa?

How are the numbers?

Well, it depends on what you’re counting.

The short-term vision created by the numbers gives us valuable data that should inform our long-term planning and community development strategies to ensure that we mitigate against the possible consequences of those realities, and more critically, reverse those trends.

Built into our spiritual and collective national DNA however, is the ability to see, act upon, and live with the vision of a far greater picture.

What’s that vision?

“You are standing, today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d.” This is the message of the Shabbos before (and that blesses the week of) Rosh Hashanah.

Close to 1 000 years ago, Rashi unpacked for us in this verse a powerful message that speaks to us today, not only as a legacy from our ancestors three millennia ago, and more than just by virtue of our souls’ presence there. No. It’s way beyond that.

Today, in September 2021, as you read this Torah article in the SA Jewish Report, you are standing, joined by the hundreds of millions of Jews in each and every generation before, the hundreds of thousands of our brethren who lived in South Africa, as well as every generation that’s yet to materialise – “before Hashem your G-d”.

“You are standing, today, all of you, before Hashem your G-d.”

When we live a life aligned to the infinite wisdom of Torah, the atomic power of each mitzvah, and the unconditional unity of our entire nation across the borders of times, space, and social class, then we can be confident in our future.

The numbers are great.

And we are assured of a sweet New Year with an abundance of revealed goodness for all of us.

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Religion

Prostrating before the King of King of Kings

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There is a three-word phrase in our formal prayers that conveys the essence of Judaism.

Being such a powerful phrase, it features appropriately in every formal prayer service, as well as in the highpoint of the prayers of the high holidays.

The phrase forms part of the Aleinu prayer, composed by Joshua ben Nun upon entering the holy land. In the Aleinu prayer, we declare our indebtedness to G-d for having given us a unique relationship with Him, “and we bow, prostrate, and express our appreciation before Melech Malchei haMelachim, the Holy One, blessed be He”.

The phrase “Melech Malchai haMelachim”, which means “The King of King of Kings” contains the key to understanding what being Jewish is all about.

Who are these three sets of kings?

The first king is obvious. It’s G-d. G-d is the king of the universe – Melech haOlam as we refer to Him in all our formal blessings. The world is G-d’s. He has the power. He calls the shots. He is its king.

The second reference to kings must refer to a group of people who also have power, who also call the shots. But if G-d is king, how can that be? The answer must be that G-d is a very special king – a king that chooses to share his kingship and confer his royal power on others, empowering them to be rulers in their own right. G-d does call the shots. It’s just that one of the shots He calls is to call on people to call the shots too.

And the third reference to kings? Who else could possibly be king other than G-d and His human co-royal partners? The third set of kings must refer to people who are unable to see themselves as being crowned by G-d, but they are willing to be crowned by people. And so it becomes the responsibility of G-d’s royal partners to take a feather from G-d’s crown and use their own crowns to empower those people and coronate them as kings as well.

This is what it means to be Jewish. The Jew recognises that G-d is king of the world. In addition, he or she recognises that G-d conferred His royal powers on a people to be royal too – “a kingdom of priests”. And ultimately, it’s the responsibility of His Jewish royal priests to confer their royal powers onto others, to empower and elevate them to their own personal kingdoms, to play their own part in taking care of the world.

Melech Malchei haMelachim – the King of Kings of Kings. Quite possibly the most profound three Jewish words of all. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a single official translation that translates them accurately. The message seems to have been lost in translation.

Our task over the high holidays in particular, and at every formal prayer service in general, is to correctly translate these three words, not only into English, but into our lives as well, and thereby accomplish our majestic mission as Jews.

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