Making sense of the sedra: Yitro

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Making sense of the sedra: Yitro

We share one broken heart

Israel tour participants each have a different perspective on a shared experience
Israel tour participants each have a different perspective on a shared experience

When you’ve shared an experience with a group, a bond is formed. Perhaps you went to school or camp together as kids. Maybe you went on a shul trip? If I were to ask each of you about a story that took place, would your descriptions correlate exactly? Or would each of your different perspectives affect your memory? A people’s person might describe the characters, a musical person may remember the song playing in the background and a foodie might recall the meal.

There was only one time in Jewish history that everyone had exactly the same experience, using all of their senses, and nobody had their own perspective in the retelling. This week in parsha Yitro we read that when we arrived at the foot of Sinai to receive the Torah, it says: “And he encamped there” (Exodus 19:2) in the singular rather than the plural. Rashi (11/12th Century commentator) famously explains that just then we were like one person with one heart.

Upon closer reading, one notices just how unique an event it was. “All the people saw the sounds and the lightning” (Exodus 20:15). How? On this one occasion, our entire nation experienced synaesthesia, the ability to see sounds. The Kli Yakar (16/17th Century commentator) explains that every word that came out of God’s mouth immediately began to take form so that they could see the letters flying in the air.

Rashi also comments that everyone who was blind was suddenly able to see, the deaf could hear and the mute were able to answer: “We will do and we will listen” (Exodus 24:7). Why the need for this multi-sensory experience? The Sfat Emet (19/20th Century commentator) explains that there’s a distinction between seeing and hearing and each has an advantage. When we see an object, we see it exactly as it is, however it is not the sight itself but rather the light energy reflecting off it that enters our eyes. When an object emits a sound, the actual wave emitted from the object itself is what enters our ears, but we may not hear the same sound as was emitted as it can become distorted en route. The sounds we saw at Sinai were as distinct as if we were seeing them, yet the actual sound waves from God’s ‘mouth’ entered our ears.

This may sound technical, but let’s consider the spiritual implications. An objective reality is to know things as they truly are; a subjective reality, though somewhat distorted by a particular perspective, is personal and therefore more meaningful. In the moment of revelation, the objective and subjective – the sights and sounds – merged, in order that God could truly communicate with us. We saw God’s undistorted word, so we could fully understand His meaning, yet also internalised His voice, to personalise that understanding in the most meaningful way for us.

Last October we shared a national experience; each time we hear another name, another story, we feel that ache as a physical pain, and our differences cannot touch the sense of togetherness we are feeling on an emotional level. We may not all have the same perspective, but we’ve belatedly realised that we are indeed one person sharing one broken heart.

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