The Transmission of Revelation
By Rabbi Rochelle Robins, Dean of the Chaplaincy School at AJRCA
Has anyone ever gently told you something about life or even yourself that makes little sense and then its meaning unfolds in levels and layers in your heart over time? Receiving is possibly far more important than creating. Parshat Yitro may be, if one were pushed to choose, the most important section of our sacred text. The Aseret Hadibrot, the ten commandments, plays more of a central role in the cultivation of Jewish life than the creation story itself. In this text, God refers to Godself as the redeemer of the people Israel and not the creator of the universes. Wouldn’t the powers of creation hold more influence over the powers of redemption?
Moses transmits the words of commandments and revelation. The Israelites were overwhelmed and true revelation, if it comes too soon and too directly, may steer us away from connection to others and the Divine. It can lead to the antithesis of the desired outcome. Moses serves as a buffer, a teller, and a transmitter of the covenant that will eventually transform the Israelites into the Jewish people, a “mamlechet kohanim v’goy kadosh, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:4-6).
Yet before we become mamlechet kohanim we are required to listen, “im shamoa tishmeu, “if you will listen, (19:5),” then you will receive and “ye‘erav lachem, it will become sweet for you” (Rashi).
The receiving of revelation or becoming awake to life’s full experience isn’t an expedient process. We may be clueless or pained at times. We may receive and then brush the awareness away as if it were chametz on the counter as we are cleaning for Pesach. Paying close attention to those who speak truth to us with subtlety or starkness reaps gifts over time. We grow and incorporate news levels of commitment to living as fully awake as possible.
We are both givers and receivers of revelation. We play the role of Moses who stands before an individual and the community to pronounce thoughts and opinions that if heeded could improve life. People mostly receive direction in gentleness but gentleness can’t always be afforded. We most often are responsible to be the listeners and receivers of family, teachers, friends, and even perceived adversaries. We are a listening tradition and it is this listening and quietness that leads us to right action and right relationships.
Our ability to receive revelation shifts according to our ability and emotional willingness. While it might be better to absorb the insight now, it may also be better to integrate later and more deeply as we’re able. As it is written in Mekhilta of Rabbi Yishamel, Bachodesh 9,
“‘And all the people saw the thunderings and lightnings.’
The thunderings upon thunderings, the lightnings upon lightnings. How many thunderings were there and how many lightenings were there? It is simply this: They were heard by each person according to his capacity.”
In his book, Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationship to Transform the Jewish Community, Rabbi Ron Wolfson commented on this midrash: “This midrash is saying something quite profound: each of us has an individualized capacity to hear revelation(s).
As we listen and respond to Parshat Yitro, we are offered to opportunity to remember that revelation and awakening can be revealed over time. And in our own time, within our own capacity, ye’arav lanu, the receiving of Torah has the capacity to become sweet for us. The creation gives us life, yet revelation keeps us awake.