Finding the Divine Voice in Today’s World

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We can work together to bring about a real tikkun olam, healing of our broken world so that future generations will bless the work of our hands.

PARSHAT NASO
NUMBERS 4:21-7:89
Naso is the longest parshah in the Torah. It starts with the end of the second Levite census that began in last week’s parshah, and then goes on to talk about when a person’s place in the community is questioned because of unusual actions: This includes impure people, people who make false oaths, the woman suspected by her husband of adultery and the law of the Nazirite, a temporary volunteer ascetic.
The second half of the parshah begins with the famous blessing of the priests. Then the text starts a section which will be concluded in next week’s parshah about the final preparations for the initiation of the sacrificial service in the Tabernacle and the departure from Mount Sinai.
The very last verse says, “When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim; thus He spoke to him.”
This past week we celebrated Shavuot, which was about the Sinai event, but the Torah tells us that God’s voice was heard not only at the mountain but also in the Tabernacle long after the Israelites had left. And we continue to this day to strive to understand these moments of divine-human contacts. We ask, “What exactly did Moses and the people hear?” or “What was the voice like?” At Sinai, the voice was so overwhelming that the people became terrified and asked Moses to be their intermediary. The Hebrew Bible’s account of divine speech and its nature is often ambiguous and mysterious.
And according to biblical scholar Robert Alter, there are three “rather puzzling turns of speech” in this one verse: Only the masculine pronoun that is the object of “to speak with,” not God or Lord is used in this verse; the verb “to speak” is used in an unusual form, which suggests the meaning “continually speaking” or more interestingly “the voice speaking itself,” which may mean a kind of mediation between divine speech and the voice that Moses actually heard; and the last two words can be translated as either “thus He (God) spoke to him (Moses)” or “thus he (Moses) spoke to Him (God),” which, according to Alter, shows “a certain nervousness about the fraught topic of direct communication between God and His prophet.”
This nervousness about the nature of divine speech is found in the many accounts of divine-human meetings in the Hebrew Bible. But the later Second Temple and rabbinic tradition carried this idea further, positing that prophecy had come to an end and that henceforth God is primarily met through divine intermediaries like angels or the logos, such as found in Philo or, most importantly, in the study of the Torah. This was seen as the earthly version of the heavenly Torah, the very blueprint of Creation itself (Midrash Rabbah 1:1): “In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the doorways. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world.”
What then should we make of this in our time? Do we still hear the divine voice in the text? Many of us do, as our sacred writings still shape the spiritual characters of our communities whatever the denomination.
In my own environmental theological work and activism, I believe that if our tradition is going to be able to develop new responses to the environmental crisis of climate change, new voices of revelation must be heard.
One midrash describes the Torah as “black fire written on white fire.” It’s an appropriate metaphor today, as fire is a process, dynamic, beautiful and dangerous. As the late Bible scholar Moshe Greenberg once wrote: “The mysterious texture of fire — its reality yet insubstantiality, its ability to work at a distance — must have contributed to its aptness as a divine symbol.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel called the divine voice that still can be heard even while hidden as “the echo of an echo of a voice were piercing the silence, trying in vain to reach our attention.” The eco-theologian Thomas Berry asserted that “the universe is the primary revelation of the divine, the primary scripture, the primary locus of divine-human communion.”
It is this last source of revelation that we must hear in our time; it is calling out to us, with a warning of potential destruction but also with a message of hope of restoration: We can work together to bring about a real tikkun olam, healing of our broken world so that future generations will bless the work of our hands.
Rabbi Lawrence Troster is the rabbi at Kesher Israel Congregation (Conservative) of West Chester. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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