THE SILENT ALEPH
“I am the Lord your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)
Growing up, one of my favorite songs was the classic Simon and Garfunkel tune “Sound of Silence.” It was made popular by the 1967 movie The Graduate. But it reminds me of a famous Hasidic interpretation of what happened at Mt. Sinai.
Let me repeat some thoughts I wrote several years ago. What was the revelation at Mt. Sinai? There are maximalists who teach that the Israelites received not only the entire written Torah (the Five Books of Moses) but the entire oral Torah (the layers of interpretation which make up the Talmud and other commentaries.) One statement teaches that everything any teacher says to a student in every generation was already heard at Mt. Sinai. That is a lot of material.
Some would say that the Israelites received only the Ten Commandments themselves. But which version, the one we read this week in Exodus or the one we read during the summer in Deuteronomy? For example, this week’s version says zachor “remember” the Shabbat, the other version says shamor “guard” the Shabbat. Which did we hear? The classic Jewish answer is that we heard them both at the same time, as we sing Friday night in Lecha Dodi, shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad “guard and remember in one word.” Humans can only say one word at a time, but God can say two or more.
Another answer is that we received only the first two of the Ten Commandments. Moses gave us the rest. The first two are written in the first person – “I am the Lord your God,” “You shall have no other gods before me.” Starting with the third commandment, we hear the laws in the third person – “Do not take God’s name in vain.” The people grew frightened and asked Moses to speak instead of God.
Some would say that the people only heard the first word of the first commandment, Anochi “I” and then grew frightened, having Moses say the rest. But my favorite teaching, closest to what I believe really happened, comes from the Hasidic Rebbe Mendel of Rymanov (died 1814). He taught that the people only heard the first letter, the aleph, before they became too frightened to hear the rest. Aleph is a silent letter. The people heard the sound of silence. In that silence they sensed God’s presence. They heard, or better perhaps felt God’s presence on Mt. Sinai. All of Jewish tradition, the written and oral law, even what every teacher will say in every generation, grew out of that encounter with God’s presence.
But this leaves a question, what was the content of that encounter? After that encounter, how did the people Israel know what was expected of them? There is a great Jewish insight, perhaps best articulated by the French Jewish existential philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Whenever we encounter the presence, or we should say face, of the other, it leaves obligations on us. One cannot simply walk away from an encounter with another without feeling a profound sense of obligation. Even more, when an entire people encounters God they walk away with a strong sense of obligations. They encounter God and realize there are Ten Commandments they must perform. God did not need to say the commandments explicitly. God simply had to be present on the mountain.
According to Levinas we cannot simply walk away from an encounter; we must ask ourselves, what are our obligations? The people Israel encountered God on a mountain and walked away with a tradition that would still be practiced over three millennia later. That is the power of the silent aleph.