Not long before my rabbinic ordination, my classmates and I had the honor of a conference call with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a wise and revered teacher of our time. He counseled us: “Notice theophany in your life. Keep a journal of these theophanies, so you don’t lose them.”
In Yitro, this week’s portion, we have a journal of the theophany that happened at Mount Sinai, when God revealed God’s self and the Ten Commandments to the Israelites. It seems unlikely that we would forget any moment when God is revealed to us, let alone the one described in Yitro.
Despite Moses’ warning to the people that something big is about to happen, and that they need to prepare for three days in order to be pure, they are still stunned by the thunder, lightning, clouds and fire. They tremble at the sounds of the shofar blasts and the shaking of the mountain. They are so immersed in the experience of witnessing God that they are said to “see the thunder,” a case of synesthesia that confirms that this is no ordinary sensory experience.
Can the people take in the Ten Commandments, considering the state of awe they are in? Perhaps this is one reason it is so important that we have the record in the Torah, for us to read repeatedly. When we read about revelation, we are not only brought back to Sinai — where it is said that every Jew, present and future, stood — but we are also given the content of that moment again. In this later, calmer time, it may be easier to contemplate it.
In our days, theophany may be quieter, harder to notice and come with less preparation. We don’t have Moses telling us to purify ourselves in advance. Or do we? The very commandments that Moses passes down to us from God can serve as our preparation and purification. When we follow the commandments, which are about how we relate to God, ourselves and others, we open ourselves up to God’s revelation in our current lives.
Like the authors of the Torah, and following Reb Zalman’s suggestion, we should take note of theophany when it happens.
If the thunder and fire and rumble of the Mount Sinai revelation is at risk of being forgotten unless we read it again and again, it’s even easier for the quiet moments of knowing the truth to slip away from us.
The 18th-century Chasidic commentator, the Sefat Emet, interprets the paradox of “seeing the thunder” in a way that reminds us that revelation is as close to us as our own selves. He writes: “All the people saw the voices” [lit. “the thunder”] … Each one of Israel saw the root of his or her own life-force. With their very eyes each one saw the part of the divine soul above that lives within. They had no need to ‘believe’ the commandments, because they saw the voices. That’s the way it is when God speaks.”
In moments of knowing in our lives, when truth is revealed to us, it often comes in forms we did not expect or could not have predicted. Our eyes and ears must be open to truth in unexpected places or times. Indeed, the divine soul is as much above as it is within, waiting to be revealed. Our preparation can be following the commandments we are given, again and again, opening us up to take notice of the divine. When we do take notice, let us make sure we do not forget it.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org .