I wrote this teaching from Madison Square Garden at a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert in January of 2016. Bruce performed a perfect album concert of, “The River” album. I believe there is a connection between this week’s Parsha (Torah Portion), Parsha Yitro, and “The River” album, which I will share a little bit later on. First, I will focus on the Parsha.
This week’s Parsha, Parshat Yitro tells the story of Matan Torah (the receiving of the Torah) at Mount Sinai. What I have always found fascinating about Parshat Yitro is the lead up to Matan Torah. Before God gives the Torah to B’nai Yisrael (The Israelites) in Chapter 19 of Shemot (Exodus) there are clouds, the Shofar, thunder, lighting, smoke, fire and the mountain shudders. Why? What is going on here? Why the special effects? Why does God give this prelude to Matan Torah? Why does God feel that it is necessary to have clouds, the Shofar, thunder, lighting, smoke, fire and the mountain shuddering, before the giving of the Torah?
I am sure that many people look at this section of the Torah and automatically assume that the reason for the special effects is to make the people have Yirat Hashem, (a fear of God). That would be the case, if the experience at Mount Sinai was purely for the purpose of giving of the Torah. However, the experience at Sinai was also for God to reveal God’s self to the Jewish people, for the people to have a more direct spiritual interaction with God.
The commentator Rashi on Shemot 19:17 puts it in a beautiful way when he describes the experience between the Jewish people and God at Mount Sinai by stating that, “the Shechinah (the presence of God) went forth to meet them (the people) like a Chatan, (a groom), who goes forth to meet the Kalah, (the bride).” It was not simply an experience of God teaching a class on Jewish law. Therefore, the question is, if the purpose of the experience at Mount Sinai was for the Jewish people to interact with God in this very direct way like the Chatan and the Kalah, then why would God precede Matan Torah with clouds, the Shofar, thunder, lighting, smoke, fire and the mountain shuddering?
Imagine that you are getting married. You are under the Chupah (the marital canopy) with your Bashert (soultmate) and the Rabbi pulls out a Shofar and lets out a Tekiah (one loud long blast) and then a cloud descends with thunder and lightning accompanied by smoke, fire and the shuddering of the floor, where the two of you are standing. This does not sound like the most intimate experience in the world. Yet this is the experience of Mt Sinai. I would have thought that these types of sights and sounds would be a hindrance during the divine revelation. During this intimate moment between God and B’nai Yisrael, it could distract people from this spiritual experience.
Therefore, we need to ask what is happening here. When people are in the midst of a thunder and lighting storm, they have to make a huge effort to hear and see what is going on. If you add the sound of the Shofar, clouds, smoke, fire and a shuddering mountain into the mix you need to struggle even harder to understand what is happening. It is my belief that this was precisely God’s intention in having this atmosphere to accompany the experience of God revealing God’s self at Sinai. God wanted to make the experience complex for B’nai Yisrael. It is and should be complex to understand God. Keep in mind that God is infinite and we as human beings are finite. Therefore, trying to have a relationship with God who is infinite is, to say the least, somewhat challenging.
However, there is something else. With such distracting weather conditions and sounds it is possible that each person who was at Mt. Sinai saw the experience in a different way. This is not only true of the interaction with God at Sinai, but anytime we interact or try to gain a better understanding of God.
This point can be illustrated by a story. There was once a school for blind children that went on a class trip to a farm where they let children feed and play with the animals. There were three blind children who were accompanied by one teacher with sight. They all went over to the pen where they kept the goats. After the children played with the goats for a while, the teacher said, “What is a goat like?” The first child said “It’s soft and furry.” The second child said, “No it’s hard and scratchy.” The third child said, “No it’s wet and slippery.” How do we account for the children having such different experiences with the goat? The first child pet the goat’s fur, the second child touched the goat’s horns, and the third child was licked by the goat all over their face. Each of the children gave a correct answer, but it was a partially correct answer. The same is true in the way we experience God. We as finite human beings can only have partial answers about God. Therefore, we should try to collect as many partial answers as possible. It is important that spiritual communities give their members different views on understanding God. Communities that try to limit the way people look at God limit the spiritual growth of their members and worse yet, they limit God.
This Week’s Title:
This week’s title comes from the album and song, “The River,” by Bruce Springsteen. As I mentioned earlier, I wrote this teaching from Madison Square Garden at a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Concert in January of 2016. That night, Bruce and the band performed a perfect album show of “The River.” “The River” is the fifth studio album and first double album by Bruce Springsteen. It was released on October 17, 1980. The connection between “The River” and my teaching is as follows:
I once heard a beautiful Dvar Torah (sermon) from Nigel Savage, President and CEO of Hazon. Hazon is a Jewish environmental organization. In his Dvar Torah, Nigel shared a story about the late Rabbi Mickey Rosen, Zeher Tzadik Livracha (may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing). Rabbi Rosen was the Rabbi of Yakar, a synagogue in Yerushalyim (Jerusalem). Nigel noted how the synagogue had a Shacharit service (morning service) and Maariv service (evening service). He asked Rabbi Rosen, since the synagogue does not have a Mincha service (afternoon service), where does Rabbi Rosen go for that service? He expected that Rabbi Rosen prayed in an obscure and an intensely spiritual synagogue in a hidden away place Yerushalyim unbeknownst to him. Rabbi Rosen responded that he simply could not pray the weekday Mincha service without listening to Mozart. Therefore, he recited Mincha at home. For him, somehow, the music of Mozart gave him a transcendent experience that helped him to achieve Devekut (a cleaving to God). While the revelation at Mt. Sinai and its prelude was a one time event, perhaps we as individuals in our desire to reach out to God and to come close to God, and for God to come close to us, could achieve glimpses, just small little glimpses of what that revelation might have been like. For some of us, we have these feelings of revelation in places like The Grand Canyon or Yosemite. For others, it could be looking at an extraordinary piece of art at the Louvre Museum. For Rabbi Rosen it was listening to a beautiful piece of music by Mozart in his apartment in Yerushalyim. And for me it is whenever I join the rest of E Street nation (Bruce Springsteen fans) as the High Priest of Rock and Roll delights us in the absolute gift of, “The River” album. Shabbat Shalom.
To listen and watch a performance of Bruce Springsteen’s, “The River” click HERE.