Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Encountering the Sacred in the Eyes of Another
A 1907 postcard depicts the Israelites gathered in awe at the foot of Mount Sinai for the revelation of the Ten Commandments, from https://www.jweekly.com/2022/01/21/shifting-focus-from-everyday-anxieties-opens-us-to-encounters-with-god/
Do you know a person whose attention is so focused that when you are with them it seems that — for a moment — nothing exists but the two of you? In such moments, we feel a profound sense of wonder and of love.
Such a blessed experience evokes one of the many midrashim that surround the encounter of the Israelites with the Divine at Mount Sinai, described in this week’s parashah. Here’s a passage from the Yalkut Shimoni (Yitro) as cited in “The Book of Legends": “Rabbi Abbahu said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox lowed, not one of the ofanim (celestial beings) moved its wing, not one of the seraphim (angels) said, ‘Holy, holy, holy!’ The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak — the whole world was hushed into breathless silence. It was then that the voice went forth, ‘I am the Lord your God’ (Exodus 20:2).”
The Yalkut Shimoni’s midrashic author describes an utterly other-worldly experience, in which all of the created universe came into hushed silence to witness the wonder of God giving the Torah to the Israelites. It was a wholly unique moment, so completely compelling that every living being (including the ocean!) came into absolute silence. The entire universe, as it were, watched the world-altering event with rapt attention.
The midrash gives us a poetic description of the indescribable event, a direct encounter of God and humanity. By definition, such an experience can never be repeated.
But I was reminded of a stunning teaching by Martin Buber. “The Rabbis imagine that all Jews — past, present and future — were there at Sinai. And Buber brings each of us to that mountainside that very day by teaching that whenever you and I speak as I-Thou, we speak with God, just as Israel did at Sinai.” (From ”A Year with Martin Buber” by Rabbi Dennis S. Ross)
For Buber, there are two distinct ways in which humans may relate to others, even to animals and objects. There is the mode that Buber calls “I-It,” in which I regard everything and everyone I encounter instrumentally, as an object to be used or manipulated for my own benefit. This may seem harsh, but think of how often you relate to a person helping you in a commercial transaction or even a loved one as someone whose sole purpose is to give you what you need. (If you really never do this, you are a truly righteous person!) I relate to the other as an “It,” an object, a machine meant to satisfy my needs, rather than as the full, marvelous and mysterious human being that they are.
In “I-Thou” mode, I see the other’s full humanity and divinity. I let go of any desire to change them, to extract anything from them or to use them for my own purposes. I behold the other person (or an animal, tree or ocean) as a wondrous part of God’s creation. I would no sooner judge or manipulate this person than I would the Grand Canyon, or any other work of nature. In an “I-Thou” moment, I see, appreciate and marvel at the other’s fullness and beauty. In so doing, I elevate myself, as well.
Buber, remarkably, suggests that in those brief, blessed moments when we are able to let go of agendas, needs, plans and opinions, we are transported to another realm. The noisy world of projects, obligations and opinions goes silent. Nothing is there but this beautiful encounter between two amazing beings.
It may sound other-worldly, but most of us have such fleeting experiences with loved ones or with nature — especially at peak moments such as witnessing a birth, a wedding or a death. What is remarkable about Buber’s teaching is that he describes such experiences as encounters with the Divine. This implies shifting our notion of an encounter with God from having a physical meeting with a supernatural Being to entering into a sacred dimension of life in human encounter.
By this definition, we can encounter Sinai again and again, whenever we can get quiet enough and open enough to enter into a state of wonder. What is more, this way of living is available to us every day.
This teaching feels especially important to me in these difficult, COVID-saturated days, when we walk around with so much dis-ease, fear and frustration. I hear Buber offering us an antidote: When you can shift your attention from the everyday anxieties, annoyances and disappointments to the very real possibility of entering into the dimension of the Sacred, everything becomes more bearable. The way I bring myself to the beings whom I encounter makes all the difference between being caught in everyday suffering and being transported into a world of beauty and mystery with another person.
May we know many such moments of sacred meeting, and may they restore our weary hearts and souls.
This post first appeared at https://www.jweekly.com/2022/01/21/shifting-focus-from-everyday-anxieties-opens-us-to-encounters-with-god/.