24th Elul: Each of us has a voice with which to speak truth

24th Elul 1st September

“Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mt. Sinai, it divided itself into 70 human languages, so that the whole world might understand it. All at Mt. Sinai, young and old, women, children, and infants according to their ability to understand. Moses too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex. 19:19), ‘Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice.’ With a voice that Moses could hear.” (Midrash Exodus Rabbah 5:9)

This midrash, which speaks of God being heard by each person according to their ability to understand, also hints that even if we might disagree with each other, we all somehow hold the same ultimate/absolute truth. 

The Talmud clarifies this Eruvin 13b

Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai. This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another. . . For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. [One group] said: “The law is in accordance with our opinion,” and the other said: “The law is in accordance with our opinion.” Ultimately a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: “Both these and those are the words of the living God.”

The word of God emerges in a multiplicity of ways and is understood according to the context and situation of those who understand. But as the Talmud tells us, the disagreements that ensued from different groups having different understandings were held with respect, the groups never separated from each other or put each other on the other side of acceptability. Instead they worked with each other, recorded each other’s opinions, found ways to work with the complexity rather than boil God’s word down to absolute do’s and don’ts.

Rav Kook developed this theme. Writing about the idea that the scholars of Talmud were known as “builders” he said “the building is constructed from various parts, and the truth of the light of the world will be built from various dimensions, from various approaches, for “these and those are the words of the living God” . . . It is precisely the multiplicity of opinions which derive from variegated souls and backgrounds which enriches wisdom and brings about its enlargement. In the end all matters will be properly understood and it will be recognized that it was impossible for the structure of peace to be built without those trends which appeared to be in conflict”

We come from a tradition of rich multi-vocality. And each of us has a voice we must bring to the community, each of us builds our world as we understand the imperatives to be. If we are passive or silent, our voice will be missed, our world the poorer. Speak your truth with respect and with love.

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