Hearing the Five Voices
February 2, 2024
By Rabbi Sara Rich

Today, early risers will turn their focus to Pennsylvania, to hear the prediction of the nation’s most famous animal meteorologist, Punxsutawney Phil. When Punxsutawney Phil leaves his den and sees his shadow, he runs back inside. This serves as a prediction for another six weeks of winter. And, if he emerges without viewing his shadow, he stays out, predicting that spring is around the corner. Although in Buffalo, we are happy with either prediction (only 6 more weeks of winter – sweet!) for others, it is a morning of anticipation for what is to come.

Our Torah portion this week, Yitro, also features a morning of great anticipation. Two months have passed since the Exodus from Egypt, and the newly liberated Israelites have reached Mt. Sinai. God instructs Moses to tell the people to clean and purify themselves for two days and then to gather at the base of the mountain, but not so close that they can touch it.

“On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the shofar (horn); and all the people who were in the camp trembled” (Exod. 19:16).

Amid this dramatic noise and light, Moses brings the shuddering Israelites to gather at the base of the mountain. The experience is like nothing they have witnessed before: “Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for God had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the shofar grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder” (Exod. 19:18-19).

So much about this scene is striking: God descending upon a mountain as fire, the mountain itself quaking, and the intensifying blasts of the shofar as God communicates to Moses through thunder. Some might find this to be an opportune time to make like a groundhog and retreat to the den, but the Israelites courageously stood to behold the miracle of revelation.

The Talmud, in Tractate Berakhot 6b, tells us that within all the noise of transmitting the Torah, there were actually five sounds, or voices. The word kolot is used, which is the plural of the word “voice,” so this accounts for two. Then, we have the voice of the shofar, which grows louder, accounting for another two sounds. Last, we have God’s answer to Moses, a fifth voice.

When I think of two voices, I think of a dialogue, a conversation. While we do not get to create what is in the Torah itself, so much of how we understand the Torah today is a result of conversation. Sometimes it is a conversation between teacher and student, or between members of a chevruta (learning partnership), and sometimes it is among entire communities, seeking to understand how to best live by the teachings of Torah today.

The two voices of the shofar connect the Israelites to the past and the future. In the past, their forefather Abraham stood atop a different mountain, Mt. Moriah, where he nearly sacrifices Isaac. Instead, he offers a ram, caught in the thicket by its horn (shofar). Since then, the shofar is a reminder of God’s covenant with Abraham, the beginning of the relationship between God and the Israelites that ultimately brings them to Mt. Sinai. The shofar is also a symbol of the future. When the Israelites finally enter the Promised Land after 40 years in the wilderness, their leader Joshua is instructed to conquer the city of Jericho. The troops circle the city and shout, while the priests blowing the shofar. The walls of Jericho come down, and they conquer the city. The shofar therefore represents the future deliverance into the land of Canaan that will come for the next generation of those who gather at Mt. Sinai.
For us as well, the voices of the past and the future call to us. When we hear the shofar, we think of those who have stood at attention for generations before us, and we understand our role as a link of the chain to those who will hear the sound of the shofar in the future.

In this week’s story, the first voice, the voice of God, is deafening. In our lives today, God’s voice can be harder to hear and decipher. We are subject to extraneous noise which we have to filter out in order to hear the voice of Truth. Still, if we go about life listening deeply, while we work, study, pray, serve others, and spend time in nature, we can hear God’s voice speaking to us.

As we strive to grasp Torah today and its meaning in our lives, let us tune in to all five voices. Let us seek understanding in conversation with one another, linking ourselves to the past and future, and listening for God’s wise, truthful voice.

 

Sara Rich is Rabbi of Temple Beth Tzedek

 

 

Hearing the Five Voices - Jewish Thought of the week 2022