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THE GREAT VOICE

by Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In this week's Torah portion Moses recapitulates, for the benefit of the new generation about to enter the land of Israel, their founding moment as a nation: the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, when the Divine voice - "a great voice that did not cease" (Deuteronomy 5:19) - spoke the Ten Commandments.

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In this week's Torah portion Moses recapitulates, for the benefit of the new generation about to enter the land of Israel, their founding moment as a nation: the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, when the Divine voice - "a great voice that did not cease" (Deuteronomy 5:19) - spoke the Ten Commandments.

In what sense did the voice "not cease"? Our sages offer three explanations: (a) It did not stop at Hebrew, the holy tongue, but continued onward to be heard in all of the world's languages; (b) it did not end with the Ten Commandments, but continued onward to become the source of all future prophecy and Torah scholarship; (c) it had no echo. The Torah is not really concerned with ancient history, or with linguistics, or with acoustics. That our sages took the trouble to tell us these details must mean that they teach us what the Torah is all about.

The fact that Hashem gave us the Torah in the world's seventy basic languages, tells us two things: Firstly, even though His primary purpose was to create a nation that would be the bearers of Divinity on earth through study of Torah and performance of mitzvot, the non-Jewish world is not to be ignored. They have a role to play in G­d's world as well, through their observance of the "Seven Noachide Laws" (prohibitions against idolatry, cursing G­d, murder, theft, sexual immorality, eating a limb taken from a live animal, and the command to establish courts of law). So G­d revealed His will to us in all of the world's languages - language being a barometer of a nation's character - in order to make us responsible and enable us to reach out to all the nations (beginning with our friends and neighbors), to guide them to observe these laws because G-d transmitted them to us through Moses. Thus, they also become partners in the grand task of making this world a dwelling place for G­d.

Furthermore, this also gave us the ability to take foreign, secular languages and turn them into vehicles for serving Hashem. Every time we use the English language to explain a Torah concept (as in Torah from Dixie), or to say a word of condolence or gratitude or kindness, we unlock some of the potential for holiness buried within the language, and by extension, within the spirit of the English-speaking peoples. To be sure, the holy words are best transmitted in lashon hakodesh, the holy tongue, Hebrew, and the words of Torah certainly lose a great deal when translated into other languages - but they are part of the "great voice" of Sinai all the same, and are no less part of G­d's infinite wisdom.

The second element hinted at by the verse when it says that the voice "did not cease" is that Hashem did not speak only the Ten Commandments. Many people are under the mistaken impression that the Ten Commandments are the only "real" expression of G­d's will, and that all the other 603 mitzvot are expendable, as if they were the product of human minds. This is incorrect. The same G­d who proclaimed the Ten Commandments is the One who gave us the rest of the Torah, along with the interpretations and amplifications of it that grew into the Mishnah, the Talmud, the Code of Jewish Law, and every valid understanding of Torah reached by a student.

The third element was that the voice had no echo. What's an echo, and how could Hashem's voice, "a great voice", not have one? An echo occurs when sound waves bounce off a surface that cannot absorb them, just as a ball bounces off a wall. The larger and more resistant the surface, the louder the echo. G­d created a physical world whose independence seems to, and often does, defy its Creator. But the purpose of this world is that, in the end, that very independence and "earthiness" will be the truest and most obvious expression of G­dliness. As the prophet expresses it in this week's Haftorah, there will come the time when "all flesh will see that Hashem's mouth has spoken" (Isaiah 40:5). At the giving of the Torah, when Hashem commissioned an entire people to be His agents to bring the world to recognize His existence, this ultimate revelation happened too, though only for the moment. Still, at that moment there was nothing in the world, not even the most crassly material, that could resist the Divine voice and what it represented. Therefore, by the simple laws of physics, there was no echo.

Every time a Jew studies any part of Torah, from the elementary alphabet to the deepest Kabbalistic secrets, he recreates in miniature the grand revelation of G­d and His Torah at Sinai. It follows, then, that it is our job to recreate that echo-less voice within ourselves as well; not to let what we learn "bounce off" our more material selves and remain an intellectual stimulus for our brains, but that our every feeling, thought, speech, and - most of all - physical action should be soaked through with that revelation of G­dliness. In so doing, they will be turned into fitting dwelling places for Him in the lower worlds.

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This essay was adapted from a public address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory.

Rabbi Alexander Heppenheimer writes from Atlanta.

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