Feeling Without Experiencing

January 21, 2022

Revelation, matan Torah, the receiving of the Ten Commandments, these are the crescendo moments of this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.

Named after Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, this week’s Torah reading introduces the reader to the disorganization of the Hebrews as they now experience freedom for the first time in centuries. They are no longer being chased by the Egyptians and possess no community structure or system of leadership. Yitro advises Moses on how to implement a structure that shifts from one “distant” leader for hundreds of thousands to multiple “local” leaders for groups, households, and neighborhoods. Once these new lines of communication and leadership are in place, the people are then prepared to receive their new laws… or at least for now, the starter set of Ten Commandments.

In the moments leading up to Gd’s declaration of the Ten Commandments, the Torah describes a seemingly impossible scene where the people “see the voices” (Exodus 20:15). Our greatest sages offer a multitude of thoughts and opinions on this verse, ranging from Rashi who suggests that even the physically blind were able to “see”, to Ibn Ezra who explained the moment as all the senses being activated simultaneously, to the Rashbam who unapologetically translated these words as literally being able to “see” the sounds.

Yet, it is the words of a 15th Century rabbi, Ovadiah ben Ya’akov Seforno, also known as the Sforno for short, who’s simple interpretation of the Torah’s use of metaphoric language, with whom I have found the greatest comfort. The Sforno explains that just as the heart cannot “see”, just as it cannot touch, and yet still “feels”, so too can our eyes “see” the sounds of such an emotional and eternal experience.

How often have we “felt” another’s pain without having experienced their suffering? How often have we “seen the light” while literally sitting in the dark?

Last weekend, many in the Jewish and non-Jewish communities were fixed in prayer without actually praying. As we watched the events at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville unfold, we each vividly imagined the possible outcomes, we felt the experience, and we all shared in the collective relief of the eventual outcome. In fact, Deborah Lipstadt, President Biden’s nominee to serve as the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism, this week shared that every attack on the Jewish community that takes place at a synagogue is “felt by Jews far beyond the confines of that specific community.”

Lipstadt also urged Jews across the world to make every effort to go to synagogue this weekend. Whether our place of worship is a large congregation or a small havurah (an informal group of families), whether we are on the left of the ideological spectrum or on the right, whether we are experienced and educated in the prayer rituals or if we are novices, or whether we join the service in-person or virtually, may we all find a way to come together in defiance of those who would otherwise have us stay apart, be isolated, and live in fear of their terroristic ways.

Just as we all personally received Gd’s Torah at Sinai, and just as we all stood with Rabbi Cytron-Walker and his congregants last weekend, let us all find the courage to join our Jewish community this weekend because we are…


Shabbat shalom,