January 7, 1999
A Divine Voice
Parashat Shemot (Exodus 1:1-6:1)
God spoke to me once when I was 12 years old. Although it happened years ago, I remember it as clearly as if it were today. Revelation is a tricky thing. I am reminded of the Midrash that when God gave the commandments at Mt. Sinai, God speaks to the Children of Israel in a divine voice so powerful they are too terrified to hear anything beyond the very first word of the first commandment. Since even that was too much to bear, God arranged it so they only heard the first letter of the first word. The first word is Anohi ("I am"), and the first letter is an alef, which is silent. So the rabbis teach us that what the Jewish people heard when God spoke was the Divine Silence of the mitzvot. Within that Divine Silence, each woman and man experienced her or his own unique divine revelation.
That was my experience, too. It happened on a Boy Scout trip to the High Sierras in the summer after sixth grade. It should have been one of the great summers of my life. Instead it was a disaster. In that one summer, I went to camp in Catalina, Jewish summer camp in Saratoga and a High Sierra backpacking experience. I was miserable, anxious and homesick during each one.
I sat on the sidelines during the entire time at Catalina, depressed and unwilling to participate in much of anything. I was actually sent home early from Camp Saratoga (an experience that left me one of the few kids in history to be told he "failed" camp!), and I was profoundly homesick in my pup tent high atop the Sierra Mountains -- even though my father went on the trip with us.
Now I suppose I could simply chalk it up to a summer of raging adolescent hormones. It was certainly that. But that wouldn't really tell the whole story. For adolescence is not only a time of great physical upheaval, it is often the most emotionally disorienting and confusing time in our lives as well. It certainly was for me.
When I was growing up, I was always the smallest kid in class. Whenever we took class pictures and lined up according to height, I was inevitably at the end of the line. I'm not sure if anyone has done a double-blind study of such things, but I can tell you from personal experience that the simple logistical decision of lining up kids for a picture can seem to have near cosmic significance to the fragile ego of a child. I was certain that being at the end of the line was as much a judgment on my social stature as it was on my physical size.
It was this less-than-secure sense of self worth that I shlepped with me to all those camps that summer, particularly prevalent high atop the mountain in the Sierras.
It must be something about mountains. For it was there in this week's portion that Moses had his encounter with God, and it was on a mountain that I had mine. I have often wondered how long Moses had to stand and watch before he noticed that the bush was burning but not burning up. The Torah tells us that only after his internal realization did God effect a divine revelation. In my case, I was alone in the tent when I heard God's whisper. To this day I don't know why. I only know I heard an unmistakable message to stop whining, and start worshipping -- to stop focusing on all I wasn't and start realizing all that I was and the miracles that were everywhere if I was willing to open my eyes and see them. I was only 12, but my life has never been the same.
Steven Carr Reuben is rabbi at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.