~ Rabbi Or N. Rose is an associate dean at the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College and the co-editor of Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice (Jewish Lights Publishing). Rabbi Rose is a friend and precious source of wisdom and
encouragement to Faith House.
The festival of Shavuot celebrates God’s revelation of the Torah to the Children of Israel at Mount Sinai. Throughout the ages, Jewish thinkers have interpreted this foundational narrative in a variety of ways, reflecting their beliefs and experiences. One teaching on matan Torah (“the giving of the Torah”) that I find particularly inspiring is a sermon by the Hasidic sage, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi of Ropshitz (1760-1827), recorded in the book Zera Kodesh.*
The Ropshitzer (as he is called by Hasidim) begins his commentary by quoting his teacher, Rabbi Mendl of Rymanov, who asserts that at Sinai the people of Israel heard “nothing from the mouth of God other than the letter aleph of the first utterance—‘Anokhi, I am the Lord Your God’ (Exodus 20:2).**” In other words, what the Israelites heard at Sinai from God was undifferentiated sound or the “sound of silence,” for a freestanding aleph makes no sound at all. In either case, this interpretation is a significant revision of the biblical text (see Exodus 20:1), as it denies that God articulated any specific content to Israel.
What leads this Hasidic master to reach such a daring conclusion? He bases his comment on a statement from the book of Psalms, “One thing God has spoken but two things I have heard” (62:12). That is to say, while the Divine-human encounter is pregnant with meaning, it always requires interpretation to determine its significance for an individual or community.
Following his teacher’s comments about the aural dimension of the revelation, the Ropshitzer inquires about what the Israelites saw at Sinai. This is a thorny question because in the book of Deuteronomy there are two contradictory statements about the issue. Deuteronomy 4:15 states, “You saw no image when the Lord your God spoke to you,” but just one chapter later it reads, “The Lord spoke with you face to face at the mountain” (5:4).
The Ropshitzer’s resolution of this contradiction builds upon Rabbi Mendel’s insight about the aleph. He states that while God was indeed formless at Sinai, the people did see a representation of the Divine—the letter aleph. Where did the Israelites see the aleph? Was it projected in the sky as a sign of God’s presence, did it take the form of a pillar of fire or a cloud of smoke? No, the aleph appeared on the faces of the people of Israel.
Thinking visually, the Ropshitzer explains that if one deconstructs the figure of the aleph, detaching the upper and lower markings from the central line, the components can be restructured to create two eyes and a nose, the outline of a human face.
He goes on to say that each eye resembles the letter yud (the tenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet), and the nose between them looks like a vav (the sixth letter). And when one adds up the two yuds and the vav they equal 26 (10+10+6=26). Amazingly, this number is the same as God’s most sacred name—Yud, Heh, Vav, Heh (10+5+6+5=26), sometimes rendered as “Yahweh” in English, but considered ineffable, unpronounceable, by Jewish authorities.
So what does all of this fanciful exegesis mean? It means, according to the Ropshitzer, that “every human face” represents both the essence of Torah—the aleph—and the sanctity of God’s name—Yud, Heh, Vav, Heh. It means that at Sinai the community of Israel came to a heightened awareness of the holiness of every person in their midst—from the prophet to the water carrier, from the priest to the wood chopper. As the Ropshitzer points out, this notion is first articulated in the book of Genesis (1:27), where the Bible describes Adam, the first human, as a being created “in the image of God.”
The implication of such teachings is that every person—Jew and non-Jew alike (since we are all descendents of Adam and Eve)—must be treated as a holy being, as a bearer of revelation, as a unique manifestation of the Divine. This is the meaning, says the Ropshitzer, of the teaching in Psalm 16:8, “I set the Lord before me continually.” In his words, “The seal of the Holy Blessed One is literally on our faces.”
May we be blessed this Shavuot to experience the great and ongoing revelation of God and Torah in the faces of all those who we encounter.
* I wish to thank my teacher, Rabbi Arthur Green, for sharing this text with me. See his brief comments on this teaching in Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology, pp. 111-112 (Jewish Lights).
** My translation is based on that of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in his The Way Into Jewish Mysticism, pp. 65-69 (Jewish Lights).