Shabbat Shalom, everyone!
At the beginning of this past week, the world stood still for a short while. Millions of people worldwide were tuning in to the live broadcasts and social media feeds, hooked onto the words of the announcers: “And the Oscar goes to…” Red carpets, fancy dresses, surprise appearances and, of course, the remarks, thank you’s and tears of the award recipients themselves – all are part of a tradition that goes back decades. The first Academy Awards, better known as “The Oscars” go back to 1929, where the first nominations and prizes were given out during a private event at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles, with only 270 people in attendance. Today, the same event catches the attention of thousands of people in the live audience and millions more who tune in from every corner of the world.
In 1957, a movie created just one year prior got nominated for the Oscars in seven categories, and ended up winning the Best Effects & Special Effects Award. It is this movie that connects the Oscars this week with – believe it or not – our week’s parsha. In truth, the connection is not very hard to spot at all, because the name of the movie is… yes, you guessed it: “The Ten Commandments”, directed by Cecil B. DeMille. The special effects, for which the movie actually won the Oscar back then, were revolutionary for its time: the parting of the Sea of Reeds, the Revelation at Sinai, the pillar of fire, the angel of death scenes and the composites of the Exodus – all were created using techniques that would be employed in filmography for years to come.
However, one tiny piece of trivia associated with the movie is the one I’d like to focus on today. Among the special effects that won it the Oscar, the voice of G-d was heavily modified and mixed with other sound effects, thus making its identification extraordinarily difficult. In various interviews given after the movie was aired, several actors and crew members claimed that they were the original voice of G-d in the movie, but none of those claims were actually confirmed. And to keep the suspense, the credits at the end of the movie do not mention anyone in conjunction with the voice of G-d.
Which brings us, oddly enough, to this week’s parsha…
We just read together the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Statements or Ten Sayings, or, much better known to the world, the Ten Commandments. Granted, the commonly used name is somewhat misleading, because not everything in the Aseret Hadibrot is a commandment. Thus, quite appropriately, another vernacular name associated with this set of statements takes the prize for the most accurate: the Decalogue, which is a word derived from Greek, which literally means: deca logos – “ten words”.
But regardless of what name we use for them, what is more important is who uttered the Aseret Hadibrot and to whom exactly were they uttered?
A longstanding tradition maintains that the first two commandments were spoken directly by G-d to the Jewish people, while the other eight were conveyed to the Jewish people through Moses. The tradition is not without base, some supporting hints being present, as a matter of fact, in the text itself.
The first hint is that the first two commandments are formulated in the first person, while the other eight are in the third person: “I am the L-rd your G-d who took you out of Egypt”, “I am the L-rd, a zealous G-d, who punishes idolatry” vs. “Don’t take the name of the L-rd, your G-d, in vain”, “Remember Shabbat because G-d rested on it” etc. It seems indeed that in the first two commandments G-d speaks, while the rest is the indirect discourse of someone else.
And the second hint is verse 20:16 of our parsha, in which the people, shocked by the power of the Revelation, turn to Moses and tell him: “You speak to us and we shall hear; but let G-d not speak to us lest we die.”
Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, a collection of halakhic midrashim on the Book of Exodus, seems to confirm this idea:
When Moses was speaking and proclaiming the Commandments to Israel — for they heard from the Almighty’s mouth only the Commandments אנכי and לא יהיה לך, whilst the others were promulgated by Moses — then the Holy One, blessed be He, assisted him by giving him strength so that his voice might be powerful and so become audible. – Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 19:19:2
The Maharal of Prague, rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Betzalel, has a different approach, supported by tradition as well: the Jews heard the entirety of the Ten Commandments from the mouth of G-d, but they couldn’t understand anything. According to this interpretation, all the Ten Commandments were uttered in a single word, a feat that would be impossible to anyone but G-d. That word, whatever it was, was so powerful, that it somehow contained all the information in the Torah, it was kind of like a compressed audio beam, and the people, while they did hear it, could not make sense of it. That is the reason why they turned to Moses for further explanations, and the Torah was repeated in human-friendly form by Moses. This idea, though contradicting the Mekhilta, is echoed by many other commentators, like Chizkuni, Rambam, Ramban and others.
Now, while it seems a bit odd, the questions of who spoke and who heard are actually very important! And not just as a trivia fact connected to a movie, but also for understanding the core of our belief and how we view the world around us as members of the Jewish faith.
One common characteristic of the monoteistic religions is that they all started with a moment of revelation. For Christians, it was the claimed resurrection of Jesus, three days after his death. For Muslims, it was the claim that G-d taught him the Quran, the holy book of Islam, through an angel. For Sikhs, it was the claimed visions of the Guru Granth Sahib.
What sets the Jewish Revelation apart from all those claims is that the revelations of the other faiths are portrayed to having been made to a single individual or a very restricted group of individuals. In Christianity, there were 12 apostles who later became the fathers of the Church. In Islam there was the prophet Mohammed, who became a central figure in Islam. And for the Sikhs it was the first guru, a role model and an inspiration for all subsequent gurus and leaders of the faith.
Jewish tradition takes a radically different route to discovering G-d. Judaism is not based on the teachings of one person, or on a revelation made to an elite group. Judaism states that we ALL had the Revelation, and thus we are all part of that “elite”. We were all there at Sinai, hearing G-d, almost literally seeing the words come down from the mountain and take shape before our very eyes. The Talmud explains that 600.000 men left Egypt, for a total of approximately 3 million souls, women, children and elderly included. And they all made it to Mount Sinai, where G-d revealed Himself to all of us.
Now, for a social contract to be valid, for a revelation to be binding and worth of becoming the base of a new faith, everyone must be present. Everyone must have direct knowledge of the terms agreed upon, and of the words being spoken. So, who exactly was there at Sinai?
The Jewish mystical tradition holds that all our souls, the souls of everyone ever created, were present at Sinai, although not all of our bodies were there. The Gemarah, in Mesechet Shevuot 39a, talks about the moment at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy 29:13-14 when Moses recalls the Revelation and reseals the covenant with the Jews: “Not with you alone do I seal this covenant and this imprecation, but with whoever is here, standing with us today before Hashem, our G-d, and with whoever is not here with us today.” Did you catch that? “And with whoever is not here with us today”. Explains the Midrash Tanchuma:
That alludes to those who were to be born in the future. Hence, they are not with us “today”, and about them it cannot be said that they are “standing here today”. But they are included in the general statement [about the Revelation]. – Tanchuma Yitro 11
Our forefathers were there at Sinai, but we were there too. So, it seems that the famous dating and matchmaking Jewish website SawYouAtSinai.com does have a tradition to stand on, after all. 🙂 It is the tradition that we all stood there together, listening closely and hearing G-d as He revealed Himself to the world.
And that is why it’s so important to clarify who spoke during that moment. Because questions might arise based on the conclusion we reach… Do we have a covenant with G-d or with Moses? Did Moses get everything right when he repeated the last of the Ten Commandments to us? Or maybe there were glitches, things that got “lost in translation”? Are we a religion that is monoteistic because we believe in what one individual (Moses) told us to be true, or were we there ourselves, hearing and seeing, part and parcel of the Revelation of Revelations?
Among all the monoteistic religions, Judaism is the only one who possesses this concept of “spiritual democracy”. The Revelation does not belong to one man or to one group. We all heard it, we all got it. Granted, Moses might have been the only one to fully grasp it right away, as he was spiritually closest to G-d. The rest of us needed a review, a “decoding” of G-d’s message, before we understood it. And after all, this “decoding” is what we’ve been doing ever since, when we read from our holy books, when we study the writings of our prophets, when we learn our Talmud and halakha.
But at its core, the conclusion is this: we don’t only believe G-d’s message to be true, we KNOW it is after all. Because what Moses translated for us at Sinai was not something new. It was rather something simply restated, something we had all heard just moments before, directly from G-d Himself.
There is a Midrashic tradition that when a child is still in their mother’s womb, an angel teaches him or her the entire Torah. Then, just as the baby is about to be born, the angel strikes the baby’s upper lip and they forget everything. But beyond being a rather cute explanation of oddly-shaped anatomical feature, this tradition speaks volumes about how we understand and engage with our own religion.
When we learn our Torah or our Talmud, we don’t just learn. We relearn. When we listen to the Ten Commandments, we don’t just listen. We relisten and we remember. When we celebrate our holidays, we don’t just perform rituals. We reenact something that we’ve lived already, long ago.
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו… “In every generation, one is obligated to see oneself as if…” is often a statement we associate with Pesach. But in reality, it is the basic tenet of our faith, and it applies to everything we hold dear in our religion. We were there, we heard it once, directly from the Source. Now we just have to remember it, and to see ourselves again at the foot of the mountain, gazing upon its fiery top, ready to hear Him again: אנכי ה אלקיך… “I am the L-rd your G-d”.
* * *
The voice of G-d was never credited in the 1956 “Ten Commandments” movie. But it has been credited, time and again, by the people who heard it directly from G-d’s mouth, by us the Jews, who stood as testimony, through our faith and destiny, that it all happened for real.
Delivered at Beth Zion Congregation
Shabbat, February 15, 2020
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