Listening to every ‘I’ including the ‘I’ of God

“The press coverage on Monday” wrote Matti Friedman, “was a major Hamas success in a war whose battlefield isn’t really Gaza, but the brains of foreign audiences.” These days people’s heads seem less interested in information than in affirmation.  Yet the cacophony of claims that follow any ‘breaking news’ story can cause our minds to ache.

Enter this season of Sinai, when suffocating self-absorption can be ventilated by sanctity.  This weekend’s observance of the giving of God’s Torah invites us onto higher ground. “I am the Lord your God who brought you forth from Egypt, from the house of slavery” the Commandments begin (Ex. 20:2).  Alas, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used to lament, “We have learned to listen to every “I” except the “I” of God.”

Some question the realness of Sinai.  They watch wickedness prosper.  They observe fundamentalists who dismiss reason, morality, and nonviolence.  They further consider, ‘Perhaps human indifference mirrors God’s.  Can the sea be persuaded?  Can stars understand?  And what appears evident in nature seems to be cosigned by human nature.’  But Sinai comes to shatter this indifference with lessons infinitely more substantial than mountains and more commanding than thunder.

Heschel asks, “Why should we a priori exclude the power of expression from the absolute being?”  Is it reasonable to assume that the One who made us and sustains us is incapable of borrowing our words to communicate a will?  If the energy stored up in the sun can reach a blade of grass, cannot the spirit of God enter the human mind?

God self-identifies in the first of the Ten Commandments as the Lord who both “brought us forth from the land of Egypt and from the house of slavery”.  Why both? Bringing us out of Egypt seems sufficient.  Why additionally acknowledge God as bringing us out from ‘the house of slavery’?  Removing us from ‘the house of slavery’ reminds us that our destiny is not to master but to partner.   Extricating us, once and for all, from the house of bondage, can liberate us to build homes hospitable to sharing goodness, homes open to seeing others more generously as we hope they may see us.

Heschel concludes, “What was expected at Sinai comes about in the moment of a good deed.”  No matter how we may feel about the divine origin of Torah, may our efforts to generate goodness help us sense the divine meaning in the fulfillment of Torah.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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