Between the Mountain and the Moment

The last words of the Ten Commandments resound from Sinai and the narrative of revelation continues:  All the people saw the thunder and the lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance (Exodus 20:15). Modern translators, wanting to align the senses, retreat from the awkward verb by saying:  All of the people perceived the thunder and the lightning.

One ancient version of the sacred text (the Samaritan Torah) sorts out perception by saying:  All of the people heard the thunder and saw the lightning.

Rabbi Ishmael, a sage of the 2nd century, addressed this verse’s confusion of the senses:  They could see that which was visible and hear that which was audible.  For Rabbi Ishmael, the Torah speaks in human language; reason draws the line between the literal and figurative. One can only see that which is see-able.

His colleague, Rabbi Akiba, disagreed. Rabbi Akiba said:  They could both see and hear that which was visible. When God spoke at Sinai, Akiba insisted, senses overflowed their banks; sight and sound inseparable.

(Click here for biblical text and midrash)

The Israeli poet, Rivka Miriam, expanded Rabbi Akiba’s view to include all of the senses:

A semblance of mountain returned to Sinai
even as the visions remained in Moses’ ears, and in his eyes the shofar and thunder sounded still

and the sixty myriad of their faces were still buried, trembling against his chest

touch still in their nostrils, taste still in their hands

and then, like opening a sack or a purse, the Torah loosened her knots before them

with her letters slowly blotting confusion from their expression, as with a kerchief

(Click here for Rivka Miriam poem in Hebrew and English)

As the divine words fade, the people are fearful and confused in the presence of a revelation too deep and high for individual senses to hold; vision resounds, smell and taste elaborate touch. The mountain had expanded to become a moment. Only now, as the poem opens, does the mountain begin to regain its former state. As each sense reclaims its own way of knowing, an unexplainable wholeness becomes only the sum of its many parts.

Torah takes her place precisely here, where the more and the mundane meet, where the meta and the physical join. Precisely now she opens her sack, her purse. With her letters, she blots away confusion and becomes the text that mediates between the mountain left behind and the moment to be met.

This entry was posted in Holidays, Midrash, Poetry, Torah. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Between the Mountain and the Moment

  1. David Weiner says:

    I’m surprised by R. Ishmael having a hard time understanding the sensory blending as very much human language; an overwhelming experience does just as the Torah describes. Senses merge. The particular organ that formed an impression of what happened is not differentiated in the present moment or in memory. Maybe the Torah is just telling us in human language how overwhelming and confusing the experience of Sinai was… no wonder our ancestors retreated (or buried all 600,000 of their faces in Moses’ chest).

  2. Gideon Weisz says:

    The polar contrast between Akiva and Ishmael on this isn’t surprising, given their general interpretive (or cognitive) style. To see these styles described beautifully, see Heschel’s “Torah from Heaven” (Torah Min Hashamayim Ba’aspaklaria Shel Hadorot), a great big wonderful book that is especially apt for Shavuot. (See particularly the end of the first part, “Torah spoke in the language of humans”. This is after the very long introduction. It’s page 4 in the Hebrew version.)

  3. Pingback: Sinai’s Appealing Thunder | Sicha – Continuing the Conversation

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