By Rebbetzin Lauren Levin
The Mt. Sinai experience was certainly more than standing around the mountain listening to Ten Commandments. The way that the entire scene is depicted is astounding and a close read will keep anyone gripped on the edge of their seat. After the tenth command is relayed we are told, “And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain, and the people saw and trembled; so they stood from afar.“ (20:14)
In many ways this moment defines us as a nation, and thus in its narrative, the Torah is extremely precise about its description. It says that the people saw the voices: how is this possible? What is the Torah trying to draw our attention to?
The Ibn Ezra (1089-1167 Spain) gives quite a general explanation. He cites other examples in the bible when one sense is used to describe the response to an inappropriate stimulus. He explains that this is alluding to the fact that there is a place where all the five senses do connect. At this deeper level, it is possible to say that they ‘saw’ something that one physically ‘hears’.
There are those commentators who try to solve the difficulties with what the people actually saw. Rashbam (1085-1158) says that the voices refer to the noises of the thunderstorm, and it was the hail etc of the storm that they saw! The Rasag (882-942) also views the description quite literally, but according to the Rasag, the revelation that Bnei Yisrael were privy to must have been quite spectacular: they saw the actual letters of the words being uttered before them inside a flame.
Rashi (1040-1105) offers a more abstract and less visual explanation. The revelation was so great that at this time the Jewish people heard what could normally only be seen. The Mt. Sinai experience was an ‘out of your senses’ experience. At the pinnacle of their inspiration and excitement for their faith, they were freed from their normal physical limitations.
We are all too aware of our limitations: those that are inherent within us and those that society imposes upon us. When we look for sunnier days to melt the snow and spiritual apathy in our lives, we aspire to ‘see the voices’ – to stretch ourselves beyond the limitations we thought we had, and to become individuals and a community that we never believed we were capable of.
It is a real pleasure to host the remarkable Peace of Mind programme for former Israeli combat soldiers. We hope that their week has helped to push against some of the limitations they face and that our Shabbat together will inspire us all to keep climbing.