Judaism: Torah Lights on Yitro: The Thickness of a Cloud
"The Lord said to Moses, behold I come to you in the thickness of the cloud" (Exodus 19:9)
The most momentous of all biblical experiences – dwarfing the Ten Plagues, the splitting of the Re(e)d Sea and perhaps even the creation of the world itself – was the Revelation at Sinai. This was the time when God came to Moses “in the thickness of the cloud” and revealed to him the Ten Commandments and much more: According to Rabbeinu Saadya Gaon, the Revelation included the 613 commandments; according to the Maharitz Hayot, the 13 hermeneutic principles of biblical interpretation, and according to the first Mishna in Avot, the corpus of the Oral Law.
What actually occurred? Did God speak in words that were heard by the Jews at the foot of the mountain? Does God have a voice, in the physical sense of a larynx, which admits of speech emanating from the Divine? Or was it the “active intellect” of Moses that “divined” or “kissed” the active intellect of God, enabling Moses to understand and communicate the Divine will to the entire assemblage, as suggested by Maimonides in his Guide for the Perplexed?
The only thing we can say with certainty is that the Sinai encounter miraculously transformed a bedraggled and beaten group of Hebrew slaves into a God-enthused and Torah-intoxicated nation. This nation dedicated itself to a concise and exalted moral code that has not been rivaled by any other nation, philosopher, ethicist or theologian in the past 4,000 years.
But can we attempt, nevertheless, to describe this numinous, fateful and glorious experience with any precision? At the risk of complicating our understanding even further, permit me to cite a commentary on our portion of Yitro written by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Lerner (1800-1854), the Izhbitzer Rebbe, in his masterful work Mei Hashiloah.
The Izhbitzer explains that while the first of the Ten Commandments begins “I am the Lord your God,” the word used for “I” is not the normal “Ani.” The Hebrew word “Anochi,” which is used instead, could also be read as “I am like the Lord your God.” Had it simply stated “I am the Lord your God,” the implication might be that God revealed the totality of His essence at Mount Sinai, precluding the possibility of any further understanding of His words. The use of the word “Anochi” – “I am like the Lord your God” – denotes that our understanding of the Revelation is not complete; it is rather an estimate and mere comparison to the total light that is gradually and continuously revealed to us.
The Izhbitzer goes on to write that the very next verse prohibiting idolatrous graven images comes to denigrate – nay, forbid – any manifestation of the Divine that is shaped according to specific and precise dimensions, perfect and complete. No Divine expression can come to a human being in a fixed, unchanging and whole-in-itself fashion. Any such expression must be taken as idolatrous.
Hence whatever one says about the Revelation must include the fact that it was open-ended, unclear and unspecific; beyond the clear, moral, ethical and theological directions of the Ten Commandments (and even these are open to interpretation throughout the generations).
Hence the Divine Presence always appears in a nebulous cloud and when Moses descended from his encounter with the Divine on Mount Sinai, his face was covered with a mask since the rays of God’s splendor made it impossible to look directly at Him. Apart from that which was revealed, much more had to remain hidden.
This is the true meaning of the Name of the God of Exodus, the Name that is not read the way it is written, the Name that itself is never completely revealed (Exodus 6:2, 3). This is built into the strange and open-ended, imprecise Name which God tells Moses to reveal to the Jewish nation: “I shall be what I shall be” (Ex.3:14).
This is the Platonic God of becoming, the shadows of the cave striving to come closer and closer to the ideal forms of true reality which always remains beyond human grasp – the elusive and evolving God of redemption – rather than the fixed Aristotelian Unmoved Mover of Creation.
This is the nature of an open-ended Revelation that must leave room for history, for human empowerment and input, for an ongoing dialogue between the “image of God” in every human being and the divine words that descended from the eternal, ethereal heavenly spheres. This is the Torah whose letter outlines were given at Sinai, but whose proper reading and interpretation continues to develop in every generation.
“Blessed art Thou, O, Lord our God, who [continuously] gives us Torah.”
This is the meaning behind the Talmudic story (Menahot 29b) of Moses who, having ascended to the supernal realms to receive the Torah, finds the Almighty placing crowns atop the sacred letters. God explains to him that in future generations a man named Akiva ben Yosef will arise who will derive mounds of new laws from each of those crowns.
But when God shows him the future and he sees Rabbi Akiva lecturing in his academy, Moses doesn’t understand the lessons and the great prophet of the Revelation becomes weak from frustration and despair. Then, when one of the disciples asks Rabbi Akiva for the source of his conclusions, and Rabbi Akiva responds, “The halakha given to Moses at Sinai,” Moses feels comforted and fulfilled.