On the Weekly Torah Portion of Yitro

mt_sinaiThis week’s Torah portion, yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23), tells the story of the revelation of the Torah to the people of Israel on Mount Sinai. It is said that this was a collective revelation, witnessed by more than half a million people.

Famously, Moses goes up the mountain and returns with the Torah inscribed in stone. Ancient lore has it that he received not only the written Torah (torah shebikhtav), but also the oral Torah (torah she’be’alpe), a tradition of interpretation of the written text which was initially passed on orally.

Few Biblical scholars take seriously the claim that the entire Torah was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Even some orthodox and ultra-orthodox scholars acknowledge the fact that the books of the Torah—let alone the rest of the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and the Kabbalistic texts—are a collection of writings contributed by different authors at different periods (see this article).

Does that mean that the concept of divine revelation is a sham? Only if you relate to Torah as the text that appears in the books. But in the Jewish tradition, this is only one of a few ways of understanding the concept of Torah, and if you consider the others, the story gets interesting.  (This may appear a bit abstract to some).

Torah as Alive Primordial Intelligence

Rabbinic literature relates to the Torah as much more than a concrete text and a tradition of its interpretation. The Torah is also described as:

· The speech of God or the name of God;
· Embodied as chokhmah, Wisdom, the architect of creation;
· A sequence of expressions that serves as the blueprint for Creation (the DNA of the universe, if you will).

These three concepts of Torah emphasize its nature as an alive level of primordial intelligence, rather than as merely text.

Interestingly enough, this mirrors the attitude towards the Veda in the Hindu tradition*. While the Veda is commonly understood as a text, a collection of mantras that are recited during the sacred performances, the Veda is also described in the Vedic literature as:

· The Word, the essence of the ultimate reality, Brahman (this is parallel to the Jewish concept of the Torah as the speech of God or the name of God);
· The totality of knowledge, embodied as the Creator (parallels the Jewish concept of Wisdom or Chokhmah);
· A sequence of sounds which forms a blueprint for Creation (again, the “DNA of the Universe”).

What is the connection between the concrete words of the text of both Torah and Veda with these more esoteric understandings of them? Abiding by the concrete texts and by the performances derived from them is meant to align one with the alive, transcendental level of wisdom as a living reality within oneself.

Be Awake and See the Sounds

The close similarity between the notion of Torah and Veda in both traditions may be informative. By understanding what the Vedic tradition says about the process of cognition of the Vedic hymns we may glean something about prophecy and revelation in the Jewish tradition.

About the Vedic hymns, the Rik Veda proclaims:

यो जागार तमृचः कामयन्ते
yo jagara tamrichah kamayante
He who is awake, the richas [Vedic hymns] seek him out. (Rik Veda, 5.44.14)

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, one of the foremost teachers of Vedic teaching in our time, often commented on this verse. He explained that the Veda—much like the Torah—eternally murmurs to itself in the transcendental field of creation. The hymns zoom forth in the awareness (“the richas seek him out”) of whoever can bring his or her awareness to that level of reality [“he who is awake]”.

An interesting feature of this process of cognition is that it involves not only sound but also sight, not as two separate elements but as a unified cognition of sound and sight. For this reason, the person who is able to thus cognize the Veda is referred to as a rishi, a seer.

This may shed light on a peculiar expression in this week’s Torah portion. After listing the ten commandments, the Torah describes the experience of the People of Israel as they heard them, starting with a peculiar phrase:

וְכָל הָעָם רֹאִים אֶת הַקּוֹלֹת
And the people see the sounds (Exodus 20:15)

Sounds, of course, are heard, not seen. Could it be that the reason the text here says that the sounds were seen is that it describes a process of cognition similar to that describes in the Vedic texts?

Torah Revelation Now

The Torah phrase describing the process of revelation has another peculiarity: although it is referring to an event that occurred in the past, it uses the present tense. Instead of saying “the people saw the sounds” it says “the people see the sounds.” Just as the Veda spells out a principle—“He who is awake, the richas [Vedic hymns] seek him out”—so does the Torah suggest to us that we can realize the Torah as a living reality within our awareness right now.

In other words, instead of speculating whether or not the entire Torah was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, let us be like Moses and allow the Torah to be a live presence in our awareness. That would be the fulfillment of what Moses declared that he wanted:

וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל עַם יְהוָה נְבִיאִים כִּי יִתֵּן יְהוָה אֶת רוּחוֹ עֲלֵיהֶם:
Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them! (Numbers 11:29)

And this will also be the fulfillment of the words of Prophet Jeremiah:

הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים נְאֻם יְהוָה וְכָרַתִּי אֶת בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאֶת בֵּית יְהוּדָה בְּרִית חֲדָשָׁה:… כִּי זֹאת הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר אֶכְרֹת אֶת בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אַחֲרֵי הַיָּמִים הָהֵם נְאֻם יְהוָה נָתַתִּי אֶת תּוֹרָתִי בְּקִרְבָּם וְעַל לִבָּם אֶכְתֲּבֶנָּה וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים וְהֵמָּה יִהְיוּ לִי לְעָם: וְלֹא יְלַמְּדוּ עוֹד אִישׁ אֶת רֵעֵהוּ וְאִישׁ אֶת אָחִיו לֵאמֹר דְּעוּ אֶת יְהוָה כִּי כוּלָּם יֵדְעוּ אוֹתִי לְמִקְטַנָּם וְעַד גְּדוֹלָם נְאֻם יְהוָה כִּי אֶסְלַח לַעֲוֹנָם וּלְחַטָּאתָם לֹא אֶזְכָּר עוֹד:
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,* says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

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* The analysis of the various non-scriptural understandings of Torah, as well as their parallel to the non-scriptural understanding of Veda in the Hindu-Vedic tradition, is based on Veda and Torah: Transcending the Textuality of Scripture, by Barbara Holdrege, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. The book is based on her PhD thesis at Harvard.

Copyright © 2014 Igal Harmelin-Moria
(Copyright does not pertain to illustrations)