אָֽנֹכִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הֽוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִֽים
Anokhi YHVH Elohekha asher hotzeitikha mei’eretz Mitzrayim mi’beit avadim.
I am Life Unfolding who brought you out of constriction and enslavement (Exodus 20:2).
After weeks of journeying from the Red Sea, the Children of Israel arrive at the foot of Mount Sinai. There, after careful preparations, they hear the voice of God and receive what are known in English as the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew term, however, is not עֲשֶׂרֶת הַמִצְוֹת Aseret Hamitzvot — mitzvot meaning “commandments.” In Jewish tradition, the words at Mount Sinai are known as עֲשֶׂרֶת הַדִבְּרוֹת Aseret Hadibrot, “The Ten Utterances.”
In all of the Torah, this is the only time when the entire People are addressed directly by God, rather than through God’s messenger, Moses. Therefore, the “Utterances” are elevated to a special status. The rabbis are fascinated by this unique occurrence and weave rich images to describe the mystery of an entire people simultaneously hearing God’s voice.
For what does it mean to hear God speak? Did the multitudes around the mountain all hear the same amplified announcement, like a giant public-address system at a ballpark? Our sages find this kind of literal rendering absurd; the voice of God, a message emanating from the Infinite Source of Life, is of a different order than a human voice. “God’s voice” must be understood metaphorically. If God is infinite, from where does God’s voice emanate? Do we hear God’s voice with our ears or with our hearts? Is God’s voice even in human language, or is it perhaps a pre-verbal revelation that we then struggle to approximate within the limitations of the spoken word?
The Torah itself challenges any literal understanding of how one might hear God’s voice. In the book of Kings, Elijah the prophet — second only to Moses in stature as a prophet who communicates directly with God — also travels to the Holy Mountain to hear God’s voice. In our portion, the mountain quakes and smokes, and thunder resounds, so overwhelming is the voice of God. But in Elijah’s encounter, he hears God not in the thunder or the raging wind or quaking earth, but rather in a קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה kol d’mamah dakah, usually translated as a “still, small voice,” but even better rendered as “the fine sound of silence.” Elijah hears God in the sound of silence. It appears that the passage about Elijah is offering a pointed contrast to the bombast and pyrotechnics of Yitro: God’s voice sometimes might overpower us like an earthquake, but at other times requires of us profound stillness in order to be discerned.
The sages build on this paradox at length by suggesting that perhaps God doesn’t have anything at all comparable to a human voice — that all visions and versions of God are and can only be human interpretations of a reality so sublime that it cannot be captured in any single description. For example, the third-century sage Rabbi Yochanan points to the first word of the Ten Utterances, אָנֹכִי Anokhi — “I am” — and suggests that for the Israelites, coming into the unmediated presence of the Infinite was more than they could handle. What each one of them did finally hear was filtered through their own being, and therefore, was never exactly the same as their neighbor:
Rabbi Yochanan taught: The moment Israel at Sinai heard the Anokhi their souls left them, and they died! Therefore, God revived them and thereafter spoke to each person according to their own capacity. Furthermore, all at Mount Sinai, young and old, men, women, children and infants, received God’s word according to their ability to understand. Even Moses understood only according to his capacity (Shemot Rabbah 5:9).
The followers of Rabbi Ishmael put it this way:
The School of Rabbi Ishmael taught: Just as a hammer that strikes a rock causes sparks to fly off in all directions, so each and every word that issued from the mouth of the Holy One divided itself into seventy languages.
Traditionally, 70 represents the totality of human languages. The “word” of God refracts endlessly through every tongue and according to each person’s unique ability to understand. The Ten Utterances in our received Torah text are understood simultaneously to be authoritative and in need of interpretation. I trust this paradoxical approach because for me it is hubris for a person ever to claim full understanding, even as we affirm that Truth exists. Every written or spoken word of Torah (even the Ten Utterances) is and can only be a draft, awaiting our further refinement as we work on refining ourselves. Jewish tradition understands Mount Sinai more as a state of consciousness than as a specific historical event or location. We assert that anyone who encounters God’s voice reverberating in their being is “standing at Mount Sinai.”
Recently, I tried an experiment. I spent time contemplating the Ten Utterances, and reflected on my years of study and reflection. Emptying myself as best as I could, I allowed myself to write my current draft of my understanding of these ancient words. I share them with you here, and hope that as you read them, they strike more sparks in the ongoing revelation of God’s voice. Perhaps I got to join the crowd at the foot of Mount Sinai. It certainly felt that way.
The Ten Utterances from Life Unfolding
- I am Life Unfolding who brought you out of constriction and enslavement so that you might serve me and be in relationship to me. No one said this was going to be easy.
- Place no gods of your own making in between you and Life Unfolding. Do not make an image or a fixed concept of Life Unfolding and attempt to serve only that fixed concept. Life Unfolding is infinite and ever-expanding, and cannot be reduced to a static idea.
- You are as good as your word. Beware: If you invoke Life Unfolding as a witness to the truth of your words, you will be held to account for them. Do not overestimate your own power to speak and fulfill.
- Make one day out of seven holy, a Sabbath, in which you relinquish illusions of control over Creation. Remember on this day that you are creature, not creator. Humbly and joyfully take your place in the chorus of Creation. On this day, you may not lord over any person or creature under your temporary authority. Rather, stand side by side with them in gratitude for Life Unfolding.
- Honor your parents, for however imperfectly they fulfilled their task, they have been the vessels and agents of My purpose, which was to bring you into the world as a new expression of Life Unfolding.
- Do not murder, for every human life is a reflection of infinite possibility, and when you destroy a life you destroy a part of Me, Life Unfolding.
- Do not commit adultery, for a marriage is a sacred covenant and you gave your word. If you are to realize your potential as an agent and partner of Life Unfolding, you must strive to be as good as your word. No one said this was going to be easy.
- Do not steal. Treat everyone and everything with fundamental respect.
- Do not bear false witness against others. When you speak of them, remember that they are children of Life Unfolding and nothing less. Witness them in this light, so that your words may be compassionate and true. Choose your words with great care; they have the power to create and to destroy.
- Do not covet. Rather, practice radical gratitude at all times for the gift of Life Unfolding, of which you are the beneficiary. This is the key to true liberation. No one said this was going to be easy.