By Rabbi Bruce Alpert
As our world grows more secular, the questions I am asked about my faith grow more sophisticated. People used to ask me whether I believed in God. Given my choice of profession, the answer to that one strikes most as obvious. So now I am asked instead whether I believe in a personal God – a living, active God, if you will; one who not only creates, but who reveals and redeems as well.
The gist of this question, as I hear it at least, seems to be as follows: “I understand why you would hold onto some vague, deistic notions out of a sense fidelity to your past or solidarity with your people. But given our knowledge of the vastness of the universe (or perhaps even multiverse), can you seriously believe that there can be a God who knows and cares about us as a species, let alone as a people or an individual?”
This is a serious question and one that demands engagement. And what better time to engage it than on the week in which our Torah recounts the great moment of revelation?
Chapter 19 of Exodus tells of the lead-up to that moment. A period of washing, abstaining and purifying culminates in a day when thunder, lightning and the sound of the shofar fill the air. Mount Sinai is covered in smoke as God’s presence descends upon it. Then, in verse 19, we are told something that I find extraordinarily curious: “The sound of the shofar grew continually much stronger; Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice.”
Moses would speak? God would answer him? The usual direction of communication is stunningly reversed here. And this reversal is happening at a time and place where it can almost seem as though Moses is conjuring up God’s presence.
Rashi gamely tries to tackle this problem. He notes that the Israelites heard only the first two of the Ten Commandments for themselves. By “answering him with a voice,” the Torah is telling us that God gave Moses a voice sufficiently strong to make the remaining commandments known to all.
Rashi’s explanation requires that we take this verse out of its context in Chapter 19 and place it instead in Chapter 20 – with the substance of the revelation. If, however, we leave the verse in its original context, we are also left with the question of why, in these moments immediately before revealing the Ten Commandments, does the Torah wish to portray Moses as doing the talking and God the answering?
In his commentary on these verses, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers what I think is the key insight in answering this question. The thunder, the lightning, the ever louder shout of the shofar, he says, are symbolic of Nature being brought figuratively to its knees by God’s presence. In this quaking world, only Humankind stands erect. Writes Rabbi Hirsch, “As soon as he consciously entered the service of God, he was taught the incomparably higher nobility of Man and his unique position in being directly near to God. Heaven and earth, the whole trembling universe lay behind his back and he stood upright before his God.”
What Rabbi Hirsch is asserting here is that, beyond the substance of revelation, the mere fact of revelation constitutes a statement about the significance of those to whom that revelation is given. By merely deeming that Humankind is worthy of being addressed, God grants our struggles a meaning and our lives a dignity that is apart from – and indeed above – the rest of creation.
To my secularist interlocutors for whom the vastness of creation precludes the possibility of a God that cares about us, I really have no response beyond that of faith. But my faith here rests not in the validity of Scripture. It draws little support from the testimony of those who stood at Sinai. Rather, my faith lies in an abiding belief that human life must have a dignity about it; that our struggles must have meaning; that our efforts to pass a better world on to our children must be worthwhile. The substance of what was revealed at Sinai confirms these beliefs. Yet revelation itself – the notion that God would care to communicate with us – affirms them in the first place.
Thus it is with the verse “Moses would speak and God would answer him with a voice.” Part of what makes the verse so difficult – indeed what allows Rashi to move it to a different context – is that we are told neither what Moses said nor how God responded. But respond God did. And in so doing, God affirms that Humankind is worthy of a response. There, in the moments before “And God spoke all these words …,” He affirms our dignity and the meaning we attach to our lives.
Bruce Alpert is rabbi at Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, Connecticut.yi