Tefillah Tuesday: God’s Voice

The book of Deuteronomy, as a literary composition, is portrayed as Moses’ long final speech, his own farewell. This book has its own unique religious vision and vocabulary. When you are familiar with its rhetoric and spiritual concerns, you can recognize Deuteronomy instantly, and would never confuse it for Genesis or Leviticus.

In today’s Tefillah Tuesday post and the following, I would like to call your attention to some interesting literary features of the second paragraph of the Shema, that might enhance how you daven this passage.

Today, let’s begin with a fascinating little incoherence in the paragraph. Who is the first-person speaker of Deuteronomy? Clearly it is Moses, teacher and preacher to the people. And indeed, our passage begins with Moshe Rabbenu speaking in his own voice of “my commandments which I command you today” – meaning those mitzvot Moses is teaching – and speaking of God in the third person, urging the people to “love the Lord your God, and serve Him.” But immediately the text switches its orientation and God’s first-person voice breaks through, saying: “Then I will give you rains in the proper season … and I will make grain grow in your field…” Certainly the text is not claiming that Moses has power over rain or agricultural fertility. That must be God talking.

Is this mere editorial sloppiness? Or is there some religious meaning in those alternating voices? In my own spiritual experience, I have never heard God speak except as refracted through human interpreters. In Judaism, there is no direct divine communication. There is only the way a community picks up a divine signal through tradition. We call that “Torah.” So a rigid distinction between what God says and what Moses says is – in Jewish terms – a false contrast. Actually, their voices can only appear together.

The ancient sage R. Shimon ben Pazzi [Palestine, 3d century] expounded this idea in an extraordinary midrash [Berakhot 45a, explaining Exodus 19.19]: Moses speaks and God answers with a voice. “The word voice is superfluous. [How else would God answer except in speech?] What is the meaning of voice? It teaches that God spoke through Moses’ voice.” In this midrash, what did Jews hear as they stood at Sinai? Only one voice: Moshe, speaking divine teaching.

This sage lived 1750 years ago but intuited a concept of revelation that still works for me in a modern, sophisticated key. So does another powerful parable [Exodus Rabbah 45.3], explaining why the Torah reports that God and Moses had a dialogue. Sometimes it says God spoke to Moses, while other times it says Moses spoke to God: “This may be compared to a cave by the sea. Sea water surges into the cave, and the cave water surges back into the sea, until it is no longer possible to distinguish which water came from which source. The sea contributes to the cave and the cave contributes to the sea.”

These teachings reach beyond the somewhat crude image of God simply delivering a book from heaven. They sense that revelation takes place where the divine and human minds flow together. We and God speak in chorus, as we see in our passage from the Shema.

When I daven this passage, I try to soften my ears, to open them up. That’s the essence of Shema Israel, after all, to teach yourself to hear. In the interlocked voices of God and Moshe, I remind myself to listen for divine echoes in sacred human speech. If I want to hear God’s voice, that’s the most likely place to find it.