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Learning to Speak the Captor's Language
Revelation is often considered the most intimate moment between God and the Jewish people. It is compared to a wedding, the culmination of a love affair, albeit a complicated one.
But what if revelation were not a model for exclusive attachment but a narrative of universal relevance? How might that change our understanding of law-giving on Mount Sinai?
Two midrashim go down this road, each from its own angle. The first midrash (Pesikta DeRav Kahana BaHodesh 12:24; Pesikta Rabbati 21) addresses the question: What is the language of revelation?
The answer is somewhat surprising: R. Nehemia, playing on the interpretation of the word "anok" ("I," in Egyptian), claims that God revealed the Torah to the Jewish people in Egyptian (beginning with the word "anokhi").
R. Nehemia compares this to a story about a king whose son was taken captive by foreigners. Before the king came to rescue his son, he learned the language of his captors. In order to communicate with his son, the king spoke in that language. So, too, when the Israelites came to Sinai, God realized they didn't understand any language but Egyptian. So God revealed the Torah in Egyptian.
The midrash doesn't explain this choice of language as an act of expediency. Rather, it suggests that the choice of language reflected love (leshon ahava, leshon hibah). God loved the people so much that God chose to speak in their language.
Torah is meant for a people who speak a foreign language. It is designed for a population enmeshed in the culture. It is not limited to the refined elite who speak the holy tongue. Torah is, fundamentally, meant to be understood. God will take any step necessary, even speaking in the language of the captors, to get the message to the people.
The second midrash reframes the entire narrative of the giving of the Torah. The narrative most of us know refers to an intimacy at the moment of revelation: The people of Israel are the only nation to merit Torah, because, unlike other nations who were offered the law, they accepted the words unconditionally. But one midrashic reversal of this view is preserved in Midrash Tehillim (68:6):
"When God spoke the word [on Sinai], God's voice split into seven voices. Those seven voices split into the 70 languages of the world, so that everyone could understand."
According to this midrash, the audience at Mount Sinai is the entire known universe of people. There is, shockingly, nothing particular about the content of a revelatory moment that mentions the seemingly exclusive relationship between God and the Jewish people, as expressed through the Exodus.
Revelation is a timeless moment when we receive divine law; it is meant to be comprehended by everyone. This is perhaps the best expression for the expansive view of the application of Torah to real life. Torah is relevant not just for every Jew but for every person on earth.
What if we acted in accordance with the suggestion of these two midrashim? What if we believed that the words of revelation are so critical that we would don any cultural cloak in order to deliver the message? How would our houses of study and our houses of worship be different if we were to speak Torah "in the language of the captors"?
And what if we took to heart the possibility that the Torah is saying something of universal relevance? Would we stop being embarrassed by the demands of revelation? Would we feel confident that living a life in accordance with God's will has enduring value for all people?
At the very least, these midrashim challenge us to stop imagining Torah as only for the clergy and the elite. Outside of Orthodoxy, American Jews have largely ceded the content of Torah to the people who learn and teach professionally. The rationale often runs: "My Judaism is expressed through acts of justice, and I don't have the time or expertise to learn Torah."
We have to stop telling ourselves: "I do social justice; other people do Torah." We would never limit the quest for the pursuit of social justice to a few elite. Why do that with Torah? We suffer and Torah suffers when we sell its relevance short.
We often have trouble articulating why Judaism matters. We cast about for the "next big idea." Torah always has been the big idea. Let's bring it back to its place of glory.
Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is the co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar. Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma (shma.com).