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Seeing and Hearing God

Rabbi Evan Schultz
Yitro 5781
February 6, 2021
Seeing and Hearing God

In his classic novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, tells of a village where people were afflicted with a strange plague of forgetfulness, a kind of contagious amnesia. Starting with the oldest inhabitants and working its way through the population, the plague causes people to forget the names for even the most common everyday objects. One young man, still unaffected, tries to limit the damage by putting labels on everything. “This is a table,” “this is a window,” “this is a cow; it has to be milked every morning.” And at the entrance of the town, on the main road, he puts up two large signs. One reads, “The name of our village is Macondo,” and the larger one reads, “God exists.”

Rabbi Harold Kushner shares this story in his classic book Who Needs God, using it to offer the idea to the reader that God is present and exists in our lives. While I appreciate Rabbi Kushner’s surety about the existence of God, I can certainly say for myself, and perhaps this may be true for some of you as well, is that just being told God exists has never really been enough for me to be a believer. I’ve always needed to see God, hear God, experience God’s presence to believe in the divine. I think about the times in my life when I felt closest to the divine. It was jumping into a lake as a 15-year old kid with my friends at camp on a Friday afternoon before Shabbat. Or standing underneath the chuppah with Jenny on our wedding day, surrounded by everyone we love. Or when our entire congregation is singing in harmony on a Friday night. Seeing. Hearing. Experiencing.

It has only been tougher this past year to have such experiential moments of divine discovery. Our sanctuary empty, community spread out, relegated to our homes every Friday night and Saturday morning, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of deaths to this horrendous virus. It’s feeling a little harder these days to hang up the God exists. I long to hear the divine right now. See the divine. Experience the divine.

Reading this week’s Torah portion, it turns out I, and perhaps many of you, are not alone. In parshat Yitro, Exodus chapter 19, it says, “Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that God had commanded him. All the people answered as one saying, “All that Adonai has spoken we will do!” And Moses brought back the people’s words to Adonai. And God said to Moses, “I will come to you in a thick cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.” Then Moses reported the people’s words to Adonai, and God said to Moses, “Let them be ready for the third day, for on the third day Adonai will come down, in the sight of all the people, on Mount Sinai.”

Bible scholar Aviva Zornberg points out that Moses responds twice to God. In verse 8 it says,  “And Moses brought back the people’s words to Adonai.” And then in the next verse, verse 9 it says, “Then Moses reported the people’s words to Adonai.” Why twice? As we know nothing in the Bible is accidental. Any good editor would have caught this if it was simply a grammatical mistake. 

Zornberg points out that Moses approaches God twice to get through to God that the people want to hear from God directly. They wish to see God, she writes. In other words, the people themselves wish to become prophets. They don’t want to be told by Moses that God exists. They don’t want to experience revelation secondhand. Thus, Moses tells God, get your divine self down there and show yourselves to the people!

God hears Moses. God tells Moses to alert the people – be ready, on the third day I will come down in the sight of all the people. And as the story goes, God does just that. Mount Sinai is enveloped in smoke and fire, the entire mountain trembles violently. The blare of the shofar grows louder and louder. The people witness the thunder and the lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking. The Israelites are overwhelmed by the revelation of the divine, so much so that they fall back and stand at a distance from the mountain. They hang up the God exists sign on the side of their caravan, and follow God and Moses deeper into the wilderness.

The challenge for us all these years later, reading this story year after year, is that many of us ask, why don’t we ever see any of that? It would certainly be easier to believe in God if every generation of Jews had a mount Sinai revelation moment. The clouds and the thunder, the blaring shofar. But alas, we do not. We are each left to discover God on our own. 

Our prayer book picks up on this human yearning to experience God first hand. A prayer in the Amidah that we often read silently, the Rztei prayer, on page 254, reads, “Rtzei, please God, receive our prayers in love. Eil karov l’chol korav, draw closer to those who call you, Pnei el avdecha, turn your face to all who serve you, shfoch ruchacha aleinu, pour your very spirit, your very essence, upon us. V’techezenah eineinu b’shuvcha l’tziyon b’rachamim, let our eyes behold your loving return to Zion, to us.”

Every Shabbat we pray these words – to see God, to hear God, to experience the divine. Aspirational words. The same words the Israelites spoke to Moses before reaching the foot of Sinai. Hey God, show us you are here! Come out come out wherever you are!

That certainly does feel tougher these days, to see God, at least for me, but not impossible. Just different. Over this past year I have started to hear God in new ways, in the quiet moments of the day, or when I sit alone at my laptop on a Friday night or Saturday morning, listening to the subtle sound of my own breath – breathing in, sighing out. And I have seen in the miracle of a vaccine produced quicker than any before, and in the profound words of a prophetess named Amanda Gorman just a few days ago. 

I am trying. And I know many of you are too. I was so moved when Ronnie Dubrowin shared in our small How You B’nai Group last week about the feeling of being overcome by standing in the empty sanctuary during the High Holy Days in front of the sacred Torah scrolls. She is trying. Perhaps that morning she found.  

We are each the Israelites, standing at Sinai, saying to Moses, we want to see, we want to hear. And this year I think for many of us has felt like standing at Sinai all over again. In so many ways. Perhaps some of us have seen and heard anew. Others still waiting, listening, looking. Are you there God? On this Shabbat, when we once again share the ancient story of revelation, may we each be strengthened to continue on the path to the Place, to perhaps hear, to see, to experience, just as our ancestors did so many years ago. During these very difficult days, may God be near to all who call, and turn lovingly to us all.

Shabbat Shalom.