Yitro: Finding God in the Cacophony

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This week’s author is Rabbi Jeffrey Brown, D.Min.

Jeffrey Brown has served as Rabbi of Scarsdale Synagogue Temples Tremont and Emanu-El in Scarsdale, New York since 2012.  When he’s alone in his car, he still likes to listen to Classic Rock as loudly as possible.

Parshat Yitro: Finding God in the Silence Cacophony

One sign I’m aging is my newfound intolerance for loud music at weddings. At 44, I’ve become the crotchety guest who can’t converse with table-mates because the music is too loud!  I’ve been thinking about that in the context of this week’s Torah portion, parashat Yitro.

Yitro includes the Torah’s first rendition[1] of the Ten Commandments.  The Biblical author is purposeful about setting the scene in Exodus 19, and repeatedly uses the Hebrew kol – קול (which I’m loosely translating here as “massively booming sounds from the Heavens”) to refer to thunder, the sounding of the shofar at Sinai, and God’s Divine Voice.

I’m particularly interested in Exodus 19:19.

וַיְהִי֙ ק֣וֹל הַשֹּׁפָ֔ר הוֹלֵ֖ךְ וְחָזֵ֣ק מְאֹ֑ד מֹשֶׁ֣ה יְדַבֵּ֔ר וְהָאֱלֹהִ֖ים יַעֲנֶ֥נּוּ בְקֽוֹל׃

The blare [kol] of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him v’kol.

The opening of the verse is straightforward: “The blare [kol] of the shofar grew louder and louder.”  But the meaning of the latter clause is murky: “As Moses spoke, God answered him v’kol [with/in/by means of kol].

Many of our commentators go to great lengths to insist that God responded to Moses non-verbally. Jewish Publication Society translates that God answered Moses “in thunder.”  The Or HaChaim (18th century commentator from Morocco and the Land of Israel) suggests that God answered Moses with the sounding of the shofar: “This sound was an indication that God approved of what Moses told God.”  Even Rashi (11th century France) mutes the Holy One: “He [God] responded [to his – Moses’ – need] concerning his [Moses’] voice.”  Rashi absurdly has us reading the verse as: “As Moses spoke, God responded by miraculously amplifying Moses’ voice [so that God would be able to hear it above the thunder and shofars].” 

I don’t “get” it.  We have countless examples of God speaking with humans.  Why, at Sinai, would our Sages presume that God suddenly forgot how to speak?

Nachmanides (13th century Spain) courageously asserts that v’kol is the actual voice of God: “They [the Israelites] heard the voice of God answering Moses, and commanding him…”  And contemporary Bible scholar Robert Alter offers: “The heart of the whole story of the Sinai epiphany is that God addresses Moses with words […] Moses and God actually exchange speech on the mountain, as a man would speak with his fellow man.”

Parashat Yitro reminds us that God’s voice can also be heard in the midst of cacophony.”

– Rabbi Jefrey Brown

Like Nachmanides’ Moses, we yearn for a Divine Partner who has the ability to hear us and respond through words. Modernity would have us seek God’s presence in the silence of a meditation, or in the heart of the forest.  But parashat Yitro reminds us that God’s voice can also be heard in the midst of cacophony – especially the joyous din of a simcha (celebration) – if we would only listen closely.

[1] See Deuteronomy 5 for the second version.

One response to “Yitro: Finding God in the Cacophony”

  1. It’s amazing how many sources build the knowledge nugget that Gd can be heard in the midst of cacophony. I’ll try to remember that next time my grandkids are visiting. Shabbat shalom

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