Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Hearing all the sounds

The revelation at Mount Sinai comes to an end. The Ten Commandments, detailing the framework for the covenant between God and the Jewish people, have been spoken by God from the heavens. As this sacred, once-in-history moment comes to a close, the people, massed together at the foot of the mountain, witness the impossible. “And all the people saw the sounds.” (Shemot 20:15)

Somehow, the Jews gathered at Mount Sinai glimpsed the sound of the thunder and lighting, an unprecedented vision Rashi (s.v. “Ro’im”) poignantly describes as “seeing the aural, in a manner impossible under any other circumstances.” For the closing act of the giving of the Torah, why does God introduce this miraculous event?

The Targum Yonatan ben Uziel, the ancient Aramaic translation of the Torah, offers a different reading of the verse in the Torah, which can shed light on how Matan Torah concludes and the role of this phenomenon. He writes that “all the people witnessed how the sounds [of the revelation] were heard by each and every person.” As the thunder settled and the heavenly fire dimmed, the Jews looked around at one another to reflect on the experience they had undergone. Yet what they discovered in that moment of togetherness is that each of them had heard the revelation in a different manner!

Certainly Yonatan ben Uziel did not mean to suggest that they all heard different commandments – the Aseret Hadibrot, the ten commandments, are written explicitly in the Torah. Nonetheless, it turns out that God communicated to each of the Jews at Mount Sinai differently, offering a different voice or perspective based on the spiritual predilection of the individual. With the declaration of the commandments, God opened the eyes of the people to notice that what they had each heard was the same, but distinctive.

In essence, God wished to convey at Mount Sinai itself that while the Torah is the same for all of us, we are each called upon to approach it and our relationship with God in a manner that reflects our own unique personality and spiritual talents. “And all the people saw the sounds”, everyone was able to find their own unique sound, heralding the unique manner through which they would connect with God and the spirituality of the religious experience.

These past few months have really come to highlight this very notion that each of us has our own path, our own voice, in the service of Hashem and the Jewish people. In the aftermath of October 7 and the ensuing war, people have found the way to use their singular skills, talents, and abilities to fulfill the fundamental mitzvah of saving and strengthening the Jewish people.

In addition to the soldiers and reservists serving on the front lines, everyone has done their part to contribute. Spouses who keep their homes stable and functioning for months on end, students who tutor displaced children and pick the farmers’ produce before it is too late.

Citizens of every type and stripe who have attended vigils of hope and funerals of despair, entertain the chayalim, keep businesses running despite economic hardship, and dropped off food, clothes, books, bedsheets, toys, cabinets, and endless other items for the displaced families.

Jews from every corner of the globe have donated generously to an ever-growing number of needs and causes, and even journeyed to Israel to lend a hand with all these efforts, or simply to give a hug.

Even in the face of the horrors and the grief, this war has produced a Har Sinai moment: a moment in which we have become unified. We felt the call, each with our own unique voice, to contribute in the ways we are best able. By combining our collective commitment with each of our unique strengths, we have persevered and become more unbreakable through these challenging times. Furthermore, we must do all in our power to speak out against any fissures of division that have recently begun to appear.

And this must not only be our vision for wartime; it is the essential foundation of a vibrant religious community. Even as we promote and encourage the observance of all mitzvot, we are called upon, ever since we stood at Sinai, “to hear the sound” finding our own path towards Avodat Hashem. What part of Torah observance – Shabbat, Tzedaka, Kosher, prayer, timely wages, etc. – do we take on with an extra dose of fervor, as our means for forging a deeper connection with Hashem?

As we experience and develop our own pathways in service to Hashem, we are reminded by our parsha to notice and indeed celebrate the different paths adopted by those around us on their own religious quests. For the Torah is made whole, we learn from Yonatan ben Uziel, through the mosaic of all our different voices and identities.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 32 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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