Diverting attention from everyday anxieties can help us meet God – J.

The Torah Column is supported by a generous gift from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Exodus 18:1–20:23

Do you know a person whose attention is so focused that when you are with them, it seems like, for a moment, nothing exists but the two of you? In such moments, we feel a deep sense of wonder and love.

Such a blessed experience evokes one of the many midrashim surrounding the Israelites’ encounter with the Divine at Mount Sinai, described in this week’s parashah.

Here is a passage from the Yalkut Shimoni (Yitro) as quoted in “The book of legends“Rabbi Abbahu said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: When the Saint gave the Torah, no bird sang, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, none of the ofanim (heavenly beings) moved its wing, not one of the seraph (the angels) said, ‘Holy, holy, holy!’ The sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak – the whole world was plunged into breathless silence. That’s when the voice came, ‘I am the Lord your God’ (Exodus 20:2).”

The midrashic author of Yalkut Shimoni describes an utterly otherworldly experience, in which the entire created universe entered into hushed silence to witness the wonder of God giving the Torah to the Israelites. It was a very unique moment, so mesmerizing that every living being (including the ocean!) went into absolute silence. The entire universe, so to speak, watched the world-changing event with rapt attention.

The midrash gives us a poetic description of the indescribable event, a direct encounter between God and humanity. By definition, such an experience can never be repeated.

But I remembered an amazing lesson from Martin Buber. “The rabbis imagine that all the Jews – past, present and future – were there at Sinai. And Buber brings each of us to that mountainside that day teaching that whenever you and I speak as I-Thou, we speak with God, just as Israel did at Sinai. (From “A Year with Martin Buber” by Rabbi Dennis S. Ross)

For Buber, there are two distinct ways in which humans can relate to others, even animals and objects. There is the mode that Buber calls “I-it”, in which I view everything and everyone I encounter instrumentally, as an object to be used or manipulated for my own benefit. This may sound harsh, but think about how often you view a person helping you with a business transaction or even a loved one as someone whose sole purpose is to give you what you need. (If you really never do that, you are a truly virtuous person!) they are.

In “I-Thou” mode, I see all of the humanity and divinity of the other. I renounce any desire to change them, extract anything from them, or use them for my own purposes. I see the other person (or animal, tree or ocean) as a wonderful part of God’s creation. I would not judge or manipulate this person sooner than I would with the Grand Canyon or any other work of nature. In an “I-Thou” moment, I see, appreciate and marvel at the wholeness and beauty of the other. In doing so, I too rise.

Buber, remarkably, suggests that in those brief blissful moments when we are able to let go of agendas, needs, plans, and opinions, we are transported to another realm. The noisy world of projects, obligations and opinions is silent. There is nothing else than this beautiful encounter between two amazing beings.

It may seem otherworldly, but most of us have fleeting experiences with loved ones or with nature – especially at peak times like witnessing a birth, wedding or death.

What is remarkable about Buber’s teaching is that he describes these experiences as encounters with the Divine. This involves shifting our conception of an encounter with God. It is not about having a physical encounter with a supernatural Being. On the contrary, to enter into a sacred dimension of life is to encounter the Saint.

By this definition, we can encounter Sinai again and again, whenever we can be quiet enough and open enough to enter a state of wonder.

Moreover, this way of life is accessible to us on a daily basis.

This teaching seems particularly important to me in these difficult and saturated days of Covid, when we walk around with so much say-ease, fear and frustration.

I hear Buber offer us an antidote: when you can shift your attention from daily anxieties, annoyances and disappointments to the very real possibility of entering into the dimension of the Sacred, everything becomes more bearable.

The way I approach the beings I meet makes all the difference between being caught up in daily suffering and being transported into a world of beauty and mystery with another person.

May we have many such moments of sacred encounter, and may they restore our weary hearts and souls.

About Timothy Cheatham

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