Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
06 February 2015 • Parashat Yitro
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. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for ADONAI 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 horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder.
This Shabbat we read the dramatic scene of the revelation at Sinai. It is full of thunder and lighting, smoke and fire, and a loud blast of the shofar. There's an earthquake, too – the mountain trembled. God causes upheaval in nature as a sign of God's awesome and awe-inspiring power. This image of divine grandeur is meant to make us feel small, humble, limited and finite in the face of such power.
That's one version of what revelation is like, of what it's like when God speaks to humans. But there's another type of revelation experience. The best example is Elijah's relationship with God, in the book of Kings. Elijah has fled for his life and finds refuge in a cave. God speaks to him in this time of distress:
“Come out,” [God] called, “and stand on the mountain before ADONAI.” And lo, ADONAI passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of ADONAI; but ADONAI was not in the wind. After the wind — an earthquake; but ADONAI was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake — fire; but ADONAI was not in the fire. And after the fire — a soft murmuring sound. (I Kings 19:11-12)God brings awesome displays of nature's fierceness, but each time, God is not in that display. Only in the quiet stillness of the final moment does Elijah meet God. That phrase "soft murmuring sound" is often translated "still small voice." It's a direct contrast to the blaring horns of the Sinai revelation. Consider the Hebrew:
קול שופר חזק / kol shofar chazak – a strong blast of the shofar (Exod. 19:16)The first kol (voice, sound) is strong, loud, blaring. The second kol is small, thin, faint. These two scenes represent the range of experiences of God's presence, or spiritual connection, or transcendence – whichever term you prefer.
קול דממה דקה / kol d'mamah dakah – a still small voice (I Kings 19:12).
There was a time in Reform Judaism when grandeur was the norm. If you've ever been to Temple Emanu-El of New York City, you know what this looks like architecturally.
They wanted to evoke a feeling of awe, of human insignificance in the face of divine majesty, so they built cathedrals to that aesthetic. Adding to this feeling was the liturgy of "high church" music, with an invisible choir intoning celestially from above, along with the formal robes worn by the clergy.
Now, I would suggest, the "still small voice" type of spirituality is ascendant. We want intimacy and accessibility from our religious experience; we want clergy we can relate to. (I think we see this trend in the rise in popularity of meditation and yoga, too, by the way.) And I think a central reason people move here to the mountains is to find this kind of spiritual connection. We seek the beauty of nature, but we are looking for stillness, tranquility, serenity – not to be overwhelmed by God's awesome power in nature.
So my invitation to you is to figure out the way you connect spiritually. Are you a "still small voice" person or a "thunder, lighting, loud shofar blast" person? And then make room for that practice in your life. As the rabbis advise, make "a fixed time" for it – or it may not happen at all.