Parashat: Yitro

Parashat Yitro
January 22, 2022, 20 Shvat 5782

Torah: Exodus 18:1-20:23; Triennial 18:1-20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5-6 (Ashkenazim); Sephardim Isaiah 6:1-13

Sitting Atop a Sundial
Ilana Kurshan 

Our parashah contains the words of the Ten Commandments, which God speaks to Moses and the people of Israel from Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are introduced by the verse, “God spoke all these words, saying” (20:1). The midrash comments on the seeming redundancy in this verse; why does the Torah need to specify that God spoke “all” these words? Wouldn’t it have been sufficient to say that God spoke these words? The rabbis understand that the additional word “all” comes to teach about God’s unique relationship to time, which has implications both for the way we understand the revelation at Sinai and for the way we experience life’s temporality.

According to one of the earliest midrashim on the book of Exodus, the Mekhilta, the Torah teaches that God spoke “all” these words to signify that God spoke all the Ten Commandments simultaneously, as one utterance (Mekhilta d’Shirata, 20:1). Unlike human beings, who can articulate only one syllable at a time, God can utter many words simultaneously, as if God’s speech transcends temporality. As a result, the Ten Commandments were not spoken at one particular moment, and were not addressed only to the Israelites who had left Egypt; rather, as the midrash in Exodus Rabbah (20:1) explains, all prophets received at Sinai the prophecies they would deliver in subsequent generations. The midrash quotes Isaiah, who says, “From the time that it was, there was I, and now the Lord God has sent me, accompanied by His spirit” (48:16). Isaiah received his prophecy in “the time that was” on Sinai, but only “now,” centuries later, has he been given permission to prophesy.

The midrash adds that it was not just the prophets, but also the sages of every generation, who received their wisdom on Sinai. Since God spoke “all these words” at once, in one timeless utterance, all the sages heard them as well, and thus their wisdom—which fills the Talmud and the midrash and countless subsequent commentaries—was spoken at Sinai as well (Exodus Rabbah 28:6). In this sense both the Written Torah and the Oral Torah were given at Sinai, and every new insight we have into God’s Torah is essentially the recollection of a teaching our souls once heard directly from God. The rabbis add that the words spoken at Sinai had no echo, which makes sense, since they did not unfold in time, but were spoken simultaneously to everyone who had been and would be created. Every soul received its share of Torah at Sinai, states the midrash, citing Moshe’s words to the people in Deuteronomy (29:14): “I make this covenant…not with you alone, but with those standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and with those who are not with us here this day.”

In further elaborating on the verse that introduces the Ten Commandments, the rabbis explain that it is not just God’s speech that transcends time, but all of God’s various activities. “Come and see that the ways of God are not like those of mortal man,” declare the rabbis (Exodus Rabbah 28:5), invoking a common midrashic trope. Unlike a mortal king, who cannot “wage war and at the same time be a scribe and a teacher of little children,” God can simultaneously execute both the Exodus from Egypt (waging war against Pharaoh at the sea) and the revelation at Sinai (dictating and teaching Torah). God is not hampered or limited by time, but can speak and do everything all at once. Likewise, God can turn dust to man and man to dust in the same instant, which explains how life and death can take place simultaneously, and how one person might rejoice while another weeps bitterly (Exodus Rabbah 28:4). God, in other words, is the ultimate multi-tasker; before God can even get around to drafting a to-do list, God has already gotten it all done.

For the rabbis, God’s unique temporal capabilities attest to God’s intimate connection with humanity. God can hear the prayers and cries of all human beings simultaneously, regardless of where they are called out and why, as per the verse from Psalms, “O You that hears prayer, unto You does all flesh come” (Mekhilta d’Shirata 15:11). Furthermore, God can respond to all prayers instantaneously, as per Isaiah’s prophecy, “And it will be that before they call, I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear” (65:24). As Lynn Kaye notes in her book Time in the Babylonian Talmud (Cambridge, 2018), “God’s temporal precision is an expression of ‘closeness,’ analogous to physical presence in the material world.” God can transcend time, but God is also closely in touch with mortal human beings who exist very much in time.

We might be tempted to wish that as human beings, we could emulate God’s temporal prowess. If only we could speak and do everything at the same time, how efficient we would all be! And yet as Mark Twain is credited as saying, “Time is what keeps everything from happening at once.” So much of the meaning in our lives is a product of our temporality. Our emotions are powerful because they are distinct from one another; if we always felt the same way, a wedding would not be a height of joy, nor would the loss of a loved one be an occasion for acute sadness. Likewise, if we always knew everything we’d ever know, we’d miss out on the pleasure of learning and discovery. Since we exist in time, the periods of our lives are distinct from one another: Shabbat feels different from the rest of the week, youth feels different from maturity, and a graduation is a moment of poignancy because it signifies the end of a stage of life that will never recur and the beginning of a future that is still uncertain. Unlike God, who is depicted in the midrash as sitting atop a sundial (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 12:29), we human beings experience time casting its long shadow on our lives, and illuminating us with its radiance.


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