How do we hear God speak, if, that is, we hear God speak at all? Would the world be a better and safer place if we did; or would it be even more frightening and unstable?
The Torah describes the great procession with which the Children of Israel marked the dedication of the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Numbers 7). Perhaps it wasn’t as dull an occasion as it seems in the recounting. On each of twelve consecutive days, a prince of each of the tribes of Israel brings his offerings. To avoid any notion of preference, the presents are precisely the same. The Torah lists them in full detail, thus repeating itself twelve times and marking this out for many readers as one of the least inspiring of all its numerous chapters: ‘For the peace offering two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, five he-lambs of the first year’. When the last of the animals has been led down the path to its unhappily sacred destiny, the Torah duly records the totals: ‘Twenty-four oxen, sixty rams…’
As so often on state occasions, the drama lies in what happens afterwards:
When Moses came to the Tent of Meeting to speak to God, then he heard the voice speaking to him from above the cover over the ark of testimony, from between the two cherubim; and God spoke to him. (Numbers 7:89)
It is this public, yet deeply private, even secret, moment to which all the preceding solemnity has led. It feels almost as intimate as when the bridegroom and the bride leave the formal celebrations, the many guests, the well-decked tables with their flowers, and withdraw to the domain of their privacy. Indeed, the Song of Songs, which has long been understood in its imagery of lover and beloved as an allegory for the inner relationship between God and humankind, invites just this comparison:
The King brought me to his chamber…His standard over me was love. (Song of Songs 1:4; 2:4)
God and Moses are finally alone together in the privacy of the tent. What happens now?
Part of the answer lies in a single small dot, or rather in the difference between one such dot and two. The Hebrew letters as written in the scroll of the Torah are not vocalised; the text contains only the consonants, but not the small combinations of dots and dashes that signify how the words must be read. This is determined primarily by the rules of grammar, and, in cases of possible ambiguity, by ancient tradition. It is that tradition which dictates that the common word for ‘speaking’, medabber, is not to be read in our verse in the familiar manner, as if the first letter were punctuated with two dots vertically aligned underneath it, but rather as meedabber, with just a single dot, a chiriq, indicating the ‘ee’ sound. The difference looks minimal, but is in fact profound, because it changes the verb from active to reflexive. Moses doesn’t therefore hear God speaking to him directly in the Tent of Meeting; rather, he overhears God speaking to God’s self. What occurs there is thus neither a dialogue between them, nor even a monologue in which God passes on instructions. Rather, Moses becomes a witness to the most intimate of meditations, or perhaps it is really a semi-silence, at the heart of holiness and wonder, the communion between God and God.
I often shiver when, after the long repetitions of all the dull parades, I reach these simple, extraordinary words about the voice ‘speaking to itself.’ People who consider that God speaks to them directly in the form of propositions and injunctions usually frighten me. They tend to know precisely what God has to say; all too often it is clear-cut, divisive and bears a remarkable affinity to their own political or military interests. When I hear such calls in God’s name I generally experience a rush of appreciation for atheists.
But I feel very differently towards those whose testament derives from overhearing God speaking to God’s self. Admittedly, the observations gleaned from these experiences tend to be rather general: that God is; that life is sacred; that God animates and loves all life; that God seeks and longs for the good. Such vague statements may shed no instant light on difficult policy decisions. But they are an unfathomable source of inspiration, courage and moral direction. They nourish the heart, restore the spirit and foster the discipline of inner purification. After all, to overhear God speaking to God’s self, one has to wait and listen, paying attention to the world, maintaining respect and reverence, keeping one’s own voice still.
The Tent of Meeting, however, is not hard to find. Life is in deep converse with itself everywhere. If we seek no special revelation and do not expect to be addressed exclusively with particular instructions, we can hear its meditations everywhere, the heart and essence of being, and, if we so choose, understand them as God’s sacred voice:
is nothing too ample
for you to overflow, nothing
so small that your workmanship
is not revealed.*
* R. S Thomas: ‘Alive’; in Later Poems 1972-1982 (Papermac, 1984, London)
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the Rabbi at New North London Synagogue and the Senior Rabbi of The Assembly of Masorti Synagoguesand a leading writer and thinker on Judaism. Rabbi Wittenberg was born in Glasgow to a family of German Jewish origin with rabbinic ancestors on both sides. His blog can be found at http://jonathanwittenberg.org.
ON Scripture — The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.