Seeing the Voices

Trying to Describe That Which Transcends Language

This is Life as a Sacred Text, an expansive, loving, everybody-celebrating, nobody-diminished, justice-centered voyage into one of the world’s most ancient and holy books. We’re working our way through Exodus these days. More about the project here, and to subscribe, go here.

But what is the voice of God?

The attempt to describe the by-definition Indescribable has been the project of human beings for just about the full length of our history.

Putting into words that which transcends words requires, often, both a sort of revelation and concealment, allusion and indirectness, an attempt to point in a general direction without saying too much—because words, in the end, inevitably fail.

The Torah does not tell us directly who or what God is, but tries to show us revelation in something of a roundabout way.

As the beginning of the giving of Torah on Sinai, the Torah is full of strong, powerful, naturalistic language:

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 horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled….The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19:16-19)

We see smoke and fire, thunder and lighting, mountains that tremble, causing the people to do the same.

At Sinai, nature even helps the people receive Revelation—God tells Moses that God’s appearance will take place

“in a thick cloud so that the people will hear….” (Exodus 19:9)

The 18th century Moroccan Kabbalist known as the Or HaChayim suggests that, in contrast to the (metaphorical, non-anthropomorphic) face-to-face chats shared between Moses and God, this cloud might be easier for the people to encounter the divine in a way that’s less “spiritual,” that’s more concrete and, perhaps, comparable to phenomena that they have already experienced.

Image of the sun streaking mystically through the clouds over the mountains, very angels singing kinda way
OK, this is Pattalung, Thailand, not Mount Sinai, but I thought it offered a nice dramatic effect for this point—no?

But God does not, in the story of the giving of Torah, appear in nature alone. Heralding and accompanying God’s appearance is the “strong voice of a shofar,” (Exodus 19:16) a ram’s horn trumpet, which grows louder and louder just before God is described as speaking and is part of the people’s experience of Revelation.

And the image is even stronger when we realize that the sound of the shofar horn is described as “blasting” and “growing louder” without attributing to the sound a real source—who is blowing the horn? From where does it come?

The giving of the Torah, here, is not “just” natural phenomena on a grand scale.

Nature is used in concrete and familiar ways, but Mother Nature is not running this particular show.

We see the people of Israel receive revelation synesthetically:

“And all the people see the voices and the flames and the voice of the shofar and the mountain smoking…” (Exodus 20:15)
A rush of green, blue, pink light on black

They see the voices—and, notably, “see” is in present tense. Did the giving of the Ten Commandments happen in the form of visual vocalization?  Did the people continue to see the voices after God stopped speaking? (One imagines the reverberation of an echo, or the trail left in the sky for a moment after an airplane has passed.)  Or did they hear words and see something else, called voices?

40 years later, poised on the edge of the Promised Land, Moses reminds the Israelites of all they have been through, and, reminding them of Revelation, asks,

“Has any people heard the voice of God speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived?” (Deuteronomy 4:33)

In Exodus, the people are recorded as seeing the voices. In Deuteronomy, years later, Moses says that they heard them.

The contemporary Torah commentator Aviva Zorenberg suggests that Moses does this as a way of

“focusing the people’s awareness on the fact that the Revelation contained no visual representation of God.”

In other words, though the people did have a visual experience at Mt. Sinai, they did not have a visual experience of God Godself, and Moses wants to make sure the Israelites don’t get confused about that, all these years later.

I would even go as far as to suggest that they could even have had such a (visual) experience—but that the limits of language forced the story’s narrator to articulate it in simple human terms, and the use of synesthetic language may have been an attempt to break linguistic boundaries, force words to do what they are not fully able to do.

God’s appearance in this text feels both familiar and entirely unfamiliar, both natural and unnatural. God communicates in ways that are both comparable to human speech, and yet not. This exceptional experience cannot actually be compared to normal events, and yet those normal events must be used as a starting point on which to build.

Needless to say, God isn’t a man on a mountain with a beard and a difficult temper; we must be careful not to take even language like God “speaking” as anything but metaphoric—the fallible, imperfect, finite language of human beings meant to gesture at that which is beyond words.

“The Torah speaks in the language of human beings,” (Sifrei Bamidbar Shelach 6 and elsewhere) the Rabbis teach us.

The Torah gives us metaphor we can access, because what else do we have?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously claimed about the giving of the Torah:

“As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash.”

If you’ve never heard this from him before, pause and absorb it for a second.

Here’s a nice definition of midrash, from our friends at (great resource, by the way—generally well-curated and trustworthy.)

Midrash (מדרשׁ) is an interpretive act, seeking the answers to religious questions (both practical and theological) by plumbing the meaning of the words of the Torah. Midrash responds to contemporary problems and crafts new stories, making connections between new Jewish realities and the unchanging biblical text.

So Heschel here is saying that the Bible is a midrash on the experience-beyond-language that is revelation, just as the Rabbis write midrash on Bible.  Again:

As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash.”

And, of course, that midrash—the midrash that is our Bible, a filling in the blanks of everything that is not clear in beyond-words (seeing-the-voices) text of revelation itself, a fanciful expanding on the core events themselves—because what else do we have? Is the Torah, written in the language of human beings.

And so we receive Torah, we try to see the voices, again and again, we squint in order to perceive what is there.  We plumb the depths of the words, down and down deeper, divers who know that this ocean has no floor.

The way in is the words, even though the words are only an access point for that which is beyond words.

But there are other ways in, as well.  For, as Rav Kook, the late 19th-early 20th c. Kabbalist and philosopher put it,

“Usually the mind conceals the divine extremely by imagining that there is a separate mental power that constructs the mental images.  But by training yourself to hear the voice of God in everything, the voice reveals itself to your mind as well.  

Then right in the mind, you discover revelation.”

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