Yom Rivii, 17 Tishri 5780
Hol Hamoed Sukkot Wednesday, 16 October 2019
Parashat B'midbar 2013

Parashat B'midbar
Rabbi Pete Tobias

10 May 2013

A Voice in the Wilderness

I like the fact that the arrival of the festival of·Shavu’ot coincides with the reading of the opening·parasha of·B’midbar. Of course we know it by the rather prosaic name of the book of Numbers (because it has a lot of numbers in it) but the Jewish tradition of using the first significant opening word of a portion means that we refer to the fourth book of the Torah and its opening reading as ‘In the wilderness…’

The festival of Shavu’ot recalls the occasion when the Israelites heard the voice of God speaking to them in the wilderness. They had journeyed for seven weeks since leaving Egypt and found themselves at the foot of Mount Sinai, from where God spoke to them and delivered the Ten Commandments (and, in some traditions, the rest of the five books of Moses).

That story is recounted in the book of Exodus (chapters 19, 20 & 24). It’s an extraordinary scene to imagine. All those who left Egypt plus, according to tradition, every single Jew that would ever live in the future, were gathered at the foot of this mountain that rumbled and shook and from which emerged fire and smoke.··Moses brought down God’s instructions and related them to the gathered throng of Israelites. On three occasions, we are told, the Israelites affirmed their commitment to carry out the instructions they had been given. In Exodus 19:8 the Israelites say·kol asher dibbeir Adonai na’aseh – everything that God has spoken, we will do. In 24:3 they repeat that phrase almost verbatim, and again five verses later.

But there is an interesting addition to that third repetition of their agreement to carry out God’s instructions. The first two responses contain only the verbna’aseh(we will do) indicate that the people are agreeing to carry out God’s commandments without any consideration or question. But the third reply has·twoverbs:·na’aseh v’nishma – we will do and we will listen. Something has changed here, and it’s an important development in the people’s perception of God’s word that should also affect us, more than three thousand years after whatever were the events that took place at Mount Sinai.

Moses’ account of the behaviour of the people at the foot of Mount Sinai indicates that they were terrified by the scenes and the sounds presented to them in the display of divine pyrotechnics. In that state of terror, it would seem, the Israelites simply stated that they would do whatever they had been told to do without a second thought. Following a full reading of the instructions and a rather gory sacrificial ritual, the people’s response adds an extra word. In most translations,·nishma is deemed to mean that the people express their obedience. But the actual word, the root of which is·sh’ma, means to listen. So instead of blindly agreeing to observe God’s commandments, the people actually listened before saying that they would do what God had commanded.

To what did they listen? There they stood, millions of them, if the text and the tradition is to be believed, watching this mystical mountain billowing fire and smoke, with deafening thunder and·shofar blasts. Somehow in the midst of this cacophony, the people made the promise to listen to the voice and the words of God rather than simply carry them out.

It is no coincidence that when the prophet Elijah finds himself at the same place as these events are reported to have taken place, he experiences God in a very different way. Like those before him, he is shown the wind, the earthquake and the fire, but he·does not find God in any of these. Then he hears God speaking to him in a still small voice.

The challenge for us as we approach the festival of·Shavu’ot and the beginning of our biblical book entitled ‘In the wilderness’ is to endeavour to hear that still small voice. We may not be treated to the overwhelming (super)natural phenomena experienced by our ancestors at this time, but there is much in our modern-day wilderness that conspires to distract us from hearing God’s still small voice whispering to us. But listen we must, for only by trying to encounter God in the wilderness of our society and our lives can we learn what it is that God truly wants us to do.

Rabbi Pete’s new book for Shavu’ot, ‘The Voice of the Shaking Mountain’ tells the story of what it was like to be a young hearing-impaired girl standing at Sinai. Through her explanation of how it is possible to hear the voice of God in many·different ways, we might also learn to appreciate that there is a difference between hearing and really listening.
The book is available here at £4.99 plus P&P.