A Voice With No Echo

The Midrash1 offers three interpretations of the phrase,2 “A loud and unceasing voice,” which describes G‑d’s granting of the Ten Commandments:

a) G‑d’s voice was divided into seven voices and they further subdivided until [the Ten Commandments were heard] in all 70 languages of the world.

b) The voice continues to resound, and from this same voice, all the prophets and sages3 of the coming generations derived their prophecy and insights.

c) Unlike natural voices, this voice did not have an echo.

The first two interpretations clearly indicate the greatness of the giving of the Torah, showing that G‑d’s voice was not limited to the Holy Tongue, or to the specific time of the revelation, but extended into other languages and subsequent generations. Yet the fact that G‑d’s voice did not have an echo does not seem to reflect its greatness. On the contrary, it appears to indicate a certain weakness.

Also, explanation is necessary, for G‑d does not perform a miracle unnecessarily.4 Since a voice generally causes an echo, the fact that this voice did not — particularly since it was a strong voice — required a deviation from the natural order. What was the reason for this deviation?

The commentators explain the necessity for this miracle as follows: Were there an echo, one might have thought that the echo was a second voice. Rather than allow for such a misconception, G‑d prevented the voice which pronounced the Ten Commandments from having an echo.

This interpretation, however, is insufficient. For an echo is clearly related to the original voice; it has the same tone and the same words. When the voice proclaiming the Ten Commandments came from all four directions simultaneously, the Jews did not err.5 If so, it is unlikely that they would err with regard to an echo, for it is obvious to any listener that an echo is merely a copy.

Another point: The Torah only relates stories when they serve as instruction in our Divine service. What lesson can we learn from the fact that the voice proclaiming the Ten Commandments did not have an echo?

When G‑d Spoke To Man

The Ten Commandments begin with the word Anochi,6 interpreted by our Sages7 as an acronym for the Aramaic phrase: אנא נפשי כתבית יהבית, “I wrote down and gave over Myself”; i.e., G‑d invested Himself in the Ten Commandments.

Moreover, when giving these commandments, He spoke to every Jew individually. This is indicated by the use of the singular E-lohecha (“your G‑d”). Furthermore, this applies not only to the Jews who stood at Sinai, but to all Jews of all time. As our Sages state,8 every Jewish soul — those who lived before,9 and those who lived afterwards — were present at the giving of the Torah. Every Jew heard G‑d tell him — “I am G‑d your L‑rd.” It is as if He gave His entire essence to every Jew individually.

Nor should one think that this relationship is confined to the time of the Ten Commandments, for it is perpetuated by the prophets and sages of every generation. For their words were not recited on their own initiative. Instead, “it was the spirit of G‑d which spoke through them, and His word was on their tongue.”10

One should not err and think that the teachings of the prophets and sages do not relate to the Sinai experience, being like the commands given to the Patriarchs before the giving of the Torah.11 This is not so. G‑d invests Himself in these teachings just as He invested Himself in the Ten Commandments.

Similarly, like the Ten Commandments, these subsequent teachings are instructions for every Jew. Every Jew is obligated to fulfill them, not only because they were granted to our people as a whole, but because they were spoken to him or her personally. This is the implication of our Sages’ connection of G‑d’s incessant voice to the teachings of the prophets and Sages. Their teachings are an expression of the voice of Sinai. Here too, G‑d speaks to every Jew individually.

The fact that a teaching was not revealed until spoken by a particular prophet or sage does not present a problem, for “until that moment, license was not granted for [this] prophecy.”12 For “there is an appropriate time for every purpose.”13 Every concept in the Torah has its appropriate time when the voice that sounded at Sinai will cause it to be revealed.

Similar concepts apply with regard to the interpretation that G‑d’s voice resounded in 70 languages. Mankind at large is obligated to observe seven universal laws.14 The Jewish people are obligated to compel15 — and when they do not have dominion over the gentiles, to convince — the people at large to observe these seven laws.

To emphasize that these seven universal laws are an integral dimension of the Sinai experience, our Sages relate that G‑d’s voice resounded in all 70 languages. This shows that even the mitzvos to be communicated in these 70 languages are part of the giving of the Torah, and must be observed for that reason. As the Rambam rules,16 every non-Jew must observe these laws because they were commanded by G‑d as conveyed through Moshe, and not because they coincide with the dictates of mortal thought.

The Refinement of Speech

Another fundamental concept that can be derived from the fact that at Mt. Sinai, G‑d’s voice resounded in 70 languages relates to our Sages’ comment that:17 “The Jews were exiled among the nations solely so that they would be joined by converts.”

In this sense, “converts” refers not only to humans who accept the Jewish faith, but also to the sparks of holiness contained in the material substance of the gentile nations. The Jews’ efforts in refining the material substance of these lands can tap the G‑dliness of these sparks and elevate them to their source in holiness.

Similar concepts apply with regard to the 70 languages. When Jews use these languages for a Divine purpose — and more particularly, when they are used to teach Torah concepts, as was the practice of the Talmud Sages who taught in Aramaic — the sparks of holiness contained in the 70 languages are elevated. Figuratively, this can be described as Jews being joined by converts.18

One might think that the Torah as it is studied in translation lacks the holiness of the original Sinai experience. For this reason, our Sages emphasize that at Sinai itself, G‑d’s voice resounded in 70 languages. Although in translation, it is enclothed in garments of a lower level, the inner voice remains the same. Indeed, the fact that it descends to a lower level indicates that it has a higher source,19 as Chassidus explains:20 “The higher an entity’s source, the lower it will descend.”

These explanations help us comprehend the uniqueness of the first two interpretations offered by the Midrash on the verse cited above. Nevertheless, the third explanation — that the voice did not have an echo — still requires explanation.

Natural, Not Miraculous

An echo reflects the pattern of Or Chozer, a rebounding light. When a light is drawn down, but reaches a point where an obstacle prevents it from being drawn down further, it rebounds. Similarly, when sound waves strike an object through which they cannot pass, they bounce back.21 This “bouncing” takes place when the obstruction does not absorb the light or sound waves.

When G‑d announced “I am G‑d your L‑rd,” there was nothing that could prevent the passage of His voice; it pervaded all existence, even inanimate objects. Every entity was permeated with His speech.

The giving of the Torah was a foretaste of the Era of Redemption,22 at which time: “The glory of G‑d will be revealed and all flesh will see.”23 Awareness of G‑d will permeate even ordinary material existence.

The revelation at Sinai was of a similar nature. For this reason, G‑d’s voice did not have an echo. This was not a miracle, but rather a natural phenomenon. Since there was nothing blocking the passage of G‑d’s voice, and His voice was absorbed into the material substance of the world, it did not bounce back.24

When Our Walls Will Speak

This is not merely a story of the past. When a Jew studies Torah, the words are absorbed by the walls of his home. As our Sages say,25 in the Era of the Redemption, “the walls of a person’s house will testify concerning him.” At present, this evidence remains hidden, but in the Era of the Redemption, “a stone from the wall will cry out, and a beam of wood will answer it.”26

(Even today, the existence of this evidence is significant. With regards to questions of modesty and other issues, we see that Torah law distinguishes between the performance of certain acts in private and in public.27 )

A foretaste of the revelations of the Era of the Redemption is reflected in the lives of the tzaddikim. In this vein, the Jerusalem Talmud relates28 that one of the elders of the Galilee possessed the staff of Rabbi Meir, and it would teach him. The question arises: How can a staff teach? And more particularly, how can it teach a higher level of knowledge than that possessed by these Sages?29

Nevertheless, Rabbi Meir’s Torah knowledge permeated the material objects in his environment. The staff absorbed his wisdom, as it were. And when the later Sage received this staff, the influence that was hidden in it was revealed.30

For the same reason, several of our Rabbis gave orders31 for their coffins to be made from the table or lectern at which they studied, or at which they gave food to the poor. For the wood of the table or lectern absorbed the Torah which they studied, and will testify to this effect.

For the Heel to Hear

All the revelations of the Era of the Redemption depend on our Divine service at the present time.32 Just as created beings are divided into four categories: inanimate matter, the plant kingdom, the animal kingdom, and humans, so too, these four categories are manifest within every human being.33 For example, our heads (and our minds) represent the human dimension of our being, and our heels (and the quality of deed) represent the inanimate dimension. To precipitate the coming of a time when the revelation of G‑dliness will permeate even material existence, we must study Torah so that it permeates even our most material dimension, our heel.

This is reflected in the Torah’s praise of Avraham:34 “eikev asher shoma bikoli. Literally, this means “because he listened to My voice,” but figuratively, it can be interpreted to mean “his heel heard My voice,” i.e., Avraham’s commitment was so great that even his heel appreciated G‑dliness.

Similarly, at the time of the giving of the Torah, G‑d’s voice permeated material existence. Spirituality and material existence are two opposites, and the spiritual cannot usually permeate the material, nor can the material absorb the spiritual. Nevertheless, at the time of the giving of the Torah, this mutual exclusivity was suspended.

This demonstrates the greatness of G‑d’s voice. It is totally unlimited, issuing from a level at which there is no difference between the material and the spiritual, and enabling the two to be fused together.35

Similarly with regard to our Divine service, the Torah’s ability to permeate even our heels stems from its unlimited G‑dliness.36 Its intellectual dimension is not sufficient, for intellect cannot relate to inanimate matter, or to the dimension of our being which parallels inanimate matter.

When the Torah permeates every aspect of a person’s being, it will be retained. As our Sages comment:37 “If [the Torah] is enwrapped in [a person’s] 248 limbs, it will be absorbed.” For studying at this level lifts a person above G‑d’s Throne of Glory, and at that level, “there is no forgetfulness.”38 This is an unlimited spiritual peak, a level which imbues man’s study with the unlimited dimensions of G‑d’s voice at Sinai.

When a person’s Torah study penetrates every aspect of his being, even his inanimate dimensions, and is never-ending — i.e., there will be no forgetfulness — and it will also affect his conduct after he has concluded studying,39 when — with the Torah’s license — he is involved in material activity. In all matters, it is obvious that he has studied Torah,40 for his learning is reflected in everything he does. This enables him to “know G‑d in all [his] ways,”41 and to make this world a dwelling for Him.