Standing again at Sinai
Read write prompt #77: opposites attract

Shavuot teaching: in your face!

Here's the teaching I offered during our tikkun leyl Shavuot this year. I give this over in the name of my teacher Reb Elliot Ginsburg, who guided us through this text in his Hasidic Sacred Year class recently. The translation below is my own; parenthetical material is my attempt to keep things clear.

We began with a chant (שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד/ Shiviti Adonai l'negdi tamid / I keep God before me always) and then dove into this text. It's dense but beautiful; I hope you enjoy!

Seeing the Aleph at Sinai / "In Your Face!"

Zera Kodesh, Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropczyce [1760-1827], vol. II, p.40a, Jerusalem, 1971

In the midrash, we read "Anochi/I am Adonai your God" (Exodus/Shmot 20:2 -- this is the first of the Aseret HaDibrot, the Ten Utterances or Sayings.) The midrash around this verse says, "Face to face God spoke with them on the mountain from amidst the fire." (Deuteronomy/Dvarim 5:4) Said Rabbi Avdumi from Haifa, (quoting Midrash Rabbah), 22,000 angels came down with the Holy Blessed One to Sinai. As it's written (Psalm 68:18) "God rides with his entourage, twice ten thousand, myriads of angels, and the Lord is among them at Sinai in holiness."

Some say "The holy name YHVH is written on their hearts." Another opinion: the Name is within them. Our rabbis teach that the name of Elohim is mixed into each of the angels: Micha-El, Gavri-El. So God says to the people Israel, you will see in the divine Face many faces (or: see the divine Face in the many angelic faces); but don't be of the opinion that there are many gods in heaven! And know that I am one God, as it says, Anochi Adonai elohecha.

This can be explained in the fashion that I heard from the mouth of my teacher, Menachem Mendel of Riminav, who quoted Psalm 62:12 -- "One thing was spoken, two things have I heard." (In other words: God may say one thing, and we hear it in two different ways. Or maybe we hear it in as many ways as we are individuals!) It's possible that when God spoke at Sinai, we only heard the א / aleph (the silent first letter) of the word Anochi from the Holy Blessed One. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) writes that "A wise man's lips bring him favor" (which is obviously the case with this teacher of mine, who was wise indeed.)

Understand that the holy words of the living God are "like fire, says God, like a hammer that shatters the rock." (God's words come into creation with great power and force. Or, maybe he's comparing his teacher's words to God's words -- since his teacher's words, when they encounter Torah, break it into many beautiful pieces for us to savor.)

We also need to understand what's written in Torah, that "face to face" or "multiple faces, God spoke with us from within the fire on the mountain." But it's also written in Torah that "you didn't see, on the day that Adonai spoke to us within the fire, except for a voice." (So one verse says that God spoke to us face to face, but another verse says we saw nothing but a voice.)

Our ancestors, of blessed memory, wrote sweetly that we should hold God in front of us at all times. They wrote books of wisdom in which the holy and unpronounceable name YHVH is hinted-at by the (silent) letter aleph.

The aleph is written in the form of a vav with two yuds attached. (Picture a slantwise ו / vav, with one י/ yud above it and another below: that's what a printed א / aleph looks like.) In gematria, Jewish word-math, we see that this deconstructed aleph adds up to 26 (vav = 6, each yud = 10) and the holy name YHVH also adds up to 26 (10 + 5 + 6+ 5).

But where this is really hinted-at is in the face of a person: one's two eyes are the two yuds, and the nose is like a letter vav, and in this way the face takes on the form of the letter aleph. This is what it means when it says (in Genesis/Bereshit) that we're created in God's image. The letter aleph is hidden in plain sight on the human face, and since the aleph represents the holy Name, that means each person's face has the holy Name on/in it.

This is the seal of God that is inscribed on the human face, and this is why we are instructed to see the likeness of the Holy Blessed One in one another. And this is why "I keep God before me always" is a fundamental principle in Torah. We are called to see God in each other human being, because God is within us.

And when we were blessed to be among those at Sinai, and heard the voice and "saw" what was spoken, we saw this form of the letter aleph which points to the divine name, and understood it to be the form of their own faces.


1) Do you perceive a tension between the idea that God spoke to us at Sinai face-to-face, and the idea that we didn't see anything but a voice?

2) What is the difference between having God "on your heart" and having God written "on your face"? Is one more internal than the other?

3) What are the ethical implications of seeing God in every human face?

4) How might we live with "I keep God before me always" as a mantra or motto?

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