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Dear Friends,

In this week’s Torah portion Moses and the People of Israel receive the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments. The text tells us:

שמות כ:יד וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת וְאֶת הַלַּפִּידִם וְאֵת קוֹל הַשֹּׁפָר וְאֶת הָהָר עָשֵׁן וַיַּרְא הָעָם וַיָּנֻעוּ וַיַּעַמְדוּ מֵרָחֹק. כ:טו וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה דַּבֵּר אַתָּה עִמָּנוּ וְנִשְׁמָעָה וְאַל יְדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ אֱלֹהִים פֶּן נָמוּת. Exod 20:14

All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn, and the mountain smoking, and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. 20:15 “You speak to us,” they said to Moses, “and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.”

Thus, contrary to popular belief, while the people saw the dramatic events leading up to the revelation at Mt. Sinai when the time came for God to actually speak to them, they were too afraid to hear directly from God. Instead, they tasked Moses with the job of hearing God’s word and then expected him to “report” back to them. So, while Moses heard God’s revelation, the people only heard Moses’ retelling of God’s word. In other words, according to this text, from the very beginning of the covenant, we have played a game of “telephone” that relies on the person or generation sharing that word with us. (As a result, Judaism and literalism are, in my opinion, incompatible. God’s “word” has always been interpreted and translated through others.)

Interestingly, while the Biblical text cited above makes it clear that the people didn’t hear revelation directly from God, the rabbis of the Talmud weren’t comfortable with the notion that the entirety of revelation came to the people through Moses either. So, in good Jewish fashion, they split the difference. In the Babylonian Talmud (Makkot 23b–24a) Rav Hamnuna suggests, through the use of Gematria (applying numerical values to letters as an interpretive process), that the people of Israel heard the first two commandments (more accurately utterances) directly from God, while the rest of the commandments were communicated to them by Moses. For them it wasn’t “all God” any more than it was “all Moses.”

I love this perspective, as it captures what I believe is one of the great strengths of Judaism—even when considering the moment of revelation we reject a simplistic, binary, either/or approach. The rabbis didn’t look for the truth at either extreme. And neither should we. In a world that is increasingly black and white, Judaism requires of us the humility to reject such absolutism and recognize that there can be competing “truths.” To quote the X-Files, “the truth is out there,” and it most likely exists somewhere in the gray areas between the extremes.

Our perspective, we are taught, may have value, but it is not the only perspective. While it takes patience and effort, when we respectfully engage with those whose views differ from ours, we are truly engaging in the process known as Jewish living.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Daniel Cohen