Commentary for Yitro

28 Feb

Religion is, inherently, an experiential thing. If it wasn’t, it would be government; just a plodding series of laws and statutes and regulations that we are required to follow. Religion wants you to feel something. You should be kind to your fellow man not just because the rules say so, but because you share a Creator who created you both in His image. Despite this, we often approach religion from an analytical standpoint, and there two major reasons for this.

The first, simply, is that humans are analytical creatures. When we see something, we want to understand how it works and why it is the way it is, and that is perfectly fine. There is nothing wrong with pouring over every word of text about the four species and contrasting all of their characteristics to determine which piece of the lulav-etrog bundle goes where and which direction to point and shake them at which time, because in doing so, we will gain a greater understanding of what it is we are doing and thus, hopefully, have a more rich experience when we perform that mitzvah.

The second reason that we approach religion analytically is because experiences are difficult, if not impossible, to recreate. At the Seder, the Haggadah urges the participant to “see himself as if he was leaving Egypt. We try to imagine what it would be like to be a slave and then finally experience freedom for the first time, but we have trouble because it is not an experience most of us can relate to. Because we cannot directly relate to it, we take the facts we have learned about slavery and we attempt to analytically break them down into situations and emotions we can understand, but we cannot truly recreate them, and thus cannot really achieve the intended experience.

At times when an experiential connection fails us, we look to analysis to create an experience for us. The revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments, which occurs in this week’s parshah, is seen as a seminal moment in Jewish history. The scene described in the text is a grandiose production of sights and sounds: Thunder and lightning, pillars of clouds and smoke, shofars blaring all over the place, and a loud rumbling voice coming from the heavens. Exodus 20:15 even tells us that the people experience a form of synesthesia, literally seeing sounds (“and the whole nation saw the voices).” Because such an ecstatic experience cannot possibly be recreated in our minds, people have tended to focus on analyzing the Ten Commandments down to every last detail, to the point where there is actually disagreement between Jews, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and many Protestant denominations on exactly where the divisions between some of the commandments are.

The Ten Commandments are unique among all of the other sections of the Torah because they have two sets of cantillation marks instead of the usual one set. The first of these sets, the lower cantillation (named because the mark on the first word of the first commandment is below the word), divides the longer, more detailed commandment into multiple verses, while some of the shorter, two to four word commandments, are all contained within a single verse. This version, used by people who are studying Torah, divides the commandments into verses reflecting normal sentence structure while its cantillation marks are used to fulfill their additional role as grammatical indicators and punctuation to help us understand and analyze the Torah.

The second set of cantillation marks are the upper cantillation (named because the first mark is above the first word), and is used for public Torah readings. In this set of notes, the cantillation is much more flashy, with many notes that are very long, very high, or very low. The commandments are divided into nine verses, with each commandment being its own verse, regardless of length, aside from the first two commandments, which are one long verse because those were the two commandments transmitted from God directly to the Israelites, without Moses acting as an intermediary, and were heard at the exact same time. The upper cantillation is intended to help us try to recreate just some small portion of the experience at Sinai. It tries to give us an experience to go with our analysis, because it is only through both experience and analysis that we can truly appreciate our relationship with God and God’s world.

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