We just observed the holiday of Shavuot, the day that we relive our encounter with Hashem’s voice emanating from atop Har Sinai. Hearing the voice of Hashem en masse was a singular event in our nation’s history, one that shaped our collective identity by granting us the opportunity to experience Hashem’s communication to us firsthand. It was this voice of Hashem that was ultimately transcribed by Moshe in the form of the Torah, the living text that we continue to study until this day.
Much like an author whose literary voice can be heard through the pages of their written works, the Torah is for us a written document that expresses Hashem’s speech. In this sense, every time we learn we are hearing Hashem’s voice speak to us, the same voice that our ancestors experienced at Har Sinai thousands of years ago.
But do we actually experience Torah that way? When we learn, do we think of it as Hashem speaking to us? If we do, what does the voice of Torah sound like?
The Voices in Our Lives
We can approach these questions by taking a look at the way we experience the human voices around us. We all encounter thousands of voices over the course of our lives. Most of them fade away without leaving much trace on our psyche. There are those voices, however, that clearly stand out and play a significant role in shaping our character.
The voices that have influenced us the most are the ones that we feel have spoken to us. They stand out because they have touched us personally in some important way. Whether the message they carried was positive or negative, we remember the voices that made us feel like they were talking to us and had something important to say.
These voices tend to be the same ones that eventually make up our own internal dialogue, so that the voices in our heads end up sounding remarkably similar to the ones in our lives.
That’s right, we all have voices in our heads (hopefully not the audible type). We may prefer to think of them as “thoughts” or “what we tell ourselves,” but the fact is that part of being human is living with ongoing mental commentary running through our minds at all times. When we pay attention to this constant stream of messages, we can sense “voices” that feed us all kinds of assertions about ourselves, others, and the world at large.
Our Mental Chatter
What contributes to the development of our internal mental chatter? Undoubtedly our parents’ voices carry significant weight in this regard. We usually only notice that we’re speaking like our parents when we utter a phrase that causes us to stop in our tracks because we can’t believe how much like them we sound.
What we don’t always realize is that we “speak” like our parents in our minds as well. The voices we carry that make up our inner commentary can sound remarkably similar to the ones we heard growing up. If we were fortunate to be raised in a home with attuned, loving parents who were encouraging, supportive, and understanding (at least most of the time), there is a good chance we will find echoes of these voices in the way we dialogue with ourselves.
If, by contrast, we grew up surrounded by voices that were critical, judgmental, and not attuned to our emotional needs, we will likely fall into similar patterns of mental commentary as we berate ourselves throughout everything we do.
The Therapist’s Voice
Of course, the self-statements we develop come from more than just our parents. Other significant individuals, such as grandparents, teachers, rabbeim, mentors, coaches, friends, and even authors and media personalities, can all contribute to the way we speak to ourselves.
As therapists, we like to think that we can have an important voice in the lives of our clients. And we’re often right. Studies show that the particular modality a therapist employs is not necessarily what makes one therapist more effective than the next; it is when a therapist can harness their voice in a way that is attuned to the needs of the client that therapy really takes off. All effective therapeutic interventions travel through the channel of a therapist’s voice that makes the client feel personally spoken to.
The renowned psychiatrist Milton Erickson was famously known to say to his patients, “May my voice go with you.” Erickson understood that if he had succeeded in creating a genuine connection with those who sought his care, his voice would remain with them as they faced the trials of daily living.
Hashem’s Overpowering Voice
With this understanding, let’s return to the story at Har Sinai. The Torah tells us that Hashem began teaching the Ten Commandments through direct audible communication. This experience was simply too much for us to bear and we instinctively ran away from the mountain out of fear. Our systems were so overwhelmed that we cried out to Moshe to ask Hashem to stop speaking so that we wouldn’t die from the sensory overload of the event. From that point on, Moshe became the spokesman for the last eight of the Ten Commandments (Shemot 20:15-16).
Chazal fill in more of the story (Midrash Rabbah 29:4): Upon hearing Hashem’s voice, we were so overpowered that our souls actually left our bodies. The intensity of Hashem’s direct communication made it impossible for us to contain the experience. At that point, it was actually the Torah itself that interceded on our behalf by asking Hashem to tone it down so that our souls could return to our bodies for the remainder of the revelation. According to the Midrash, this is what Dovid HaMelech meant when he referred to the Torah as meshivat nafesh, “returning the soul [of man]” (Tehilim 19:8).
Torah as Communication
Many observations can be made about this episode, but for our purposes it is interesting to note that although the Torah is Hashem’s word and not an entity that can act on its own, Hashem nevertheless set things up so that the Torah would “step in” and bring about better communication from Him to us. What is the message in Him arranging it this way?
It seems that Hashem wanted us to understand that the role of Torah is to be a conduit for His word to enter our lives in a way that we can hear. The word of Hashem is not meant to overwhelm our system. Engaging with Torah should not leave us feeling like this is too much for me, that there is no way for me to contain it. Quite the opposite. The Torah is meant for human beings, to be absorbed by people in a way that speaks to them.
In this sense, Torah also has a “voice.” From the third of the Ten Commandments on, Moshe communicated Torah to us in a way that each person felt as if Hashem were talking to him or her directly. The tone of Hashem’s communication had shifted, whereby we no longer felt scared to be in its presence. Far from being blown away, we were now on the edge of our seats, completely attuned to the personal communication we were each receiving at Har Sinai.
Perhaps this episode has a lesson to teach us about the way Torah is meant to be studied. When we learn Torah, we are supposed to feel that it is speaking directly to us. This can only happen, though, if we choose to see it that way.
If we understand that the Torah is a form of communication aimed directly at us personally, we will approach it entirely differently. Instead of viewing it as a dry or ancient text, it will come alive and mean something to us. Whether we’re studying a moral teaching or a complex discussion about a halachic issue, the question of what this is trying to tell me is the same. What is Hashem teaching me here? What am I meant to understand from this?
Viewing the Torah in this way may also shed light upon the very same passage from Dovid HaMelech quoted above. Another interpretation of the phrase meshivat nafesh is “settling the soul” (Metzudot). The Torah’s voice is meant to be a settling one. Torah settles the soul by providing guidance and clarity of direction in an otherwise chaotic world. Much like a wise teacher, the Torah’s voice sometimes shows care and is sometimes stern, but is always instructing and shepherding us towards a better, more meaningful life.