I just baked the most awesome challah. I don't know what got into me. I divided the dough into four equal portions, divided each portion into three, and began rolling out the strands for braiding. I then braided three medium-sized challot. As I rolled out the final pieces of dough, I felt compelled to make something of them. It is, after all, parashat Yitro, recounting the revelation of Torah at Sinai.
In honor of the dramatic setting, I thought about making a mountain, but couldn't quite get the shape right. I feared it would bake into a blob and feel more like the midrashim that imagine Torah as a threatening mass of laws that the Holy One held over the heads of the Israelites.
Then I returned to a very ancient wondering. What actually was revealed at Sinai?
According to the school of Rabbi Yishmael, it was not in fact the whole Torah, but just the Ten Commandments that were revealed. In that spirit, I tried to make a bready version of the tablets that Moshe carried, but couldn't quite figure out how. And furthermore, I couldn't decide if I wanted to make the broken tablets that Moshe smashed or the second set that Moses engraved himself. This would make for a very good bake-off challenge!
Then I considered the moment of revelation itself:
משה ידבר והאלוהים יעננו בקול
"Moses spoke; God responded to him in thunder (19:19)."
Thunder and lightning bolts would have been cool, but I couldn't think of how to depict thunder and then it would just be a lightning storm. Which wouldn't account for the kol, the voice, the call. And I realized, isn't that the point? For thousands of years we have been trying to make sense of the ineffable "kol" that called out to us from Mt. Sinai. (The Hebrew here is the same Kol, the same word, that appears in our community's name, Kol Tzedek – A voice for justice.)
What was this Kol? What did it sound or feel like? Did the Holy One use language? Was Moses translating?
And then, as I was holding these three final strands of enriched dough, they mystically and magically emerged as the letter Alef. (I had to double check my block lettering.)
Staring at my doughy Alef, I was reminded of this beautiful teaching from my teacher Rabbi Art Green, who taught in the name of R. Mendel Rymanover, an 18th-century Hasidic teacher in Poland. What was revealed at Sinai, in the "kol" of the Holy One was the very first alef of the very first utterance anokhi (Exodus 20:2). The alef that is itself a silent letter, contains all of Torah. The Holy One speaks in silence. In the still small voice. In our hearts. Everything is contained in the silence.
Rabbi Green explains, "Alef itself, as the Rymanover knew well, is a construct. It is made up of a yod above, a yod below, and an angular vav that joins them. The first yod is ḥokhmah, the inner Mind of God; the second is shekhinah, The Holy One as manifest throughout the world and in our own souls, the God within. The vav, which means 'and', links them together, teaching that the two are one, indeed that there is only One. And that alef is itself the number One."
From the mystical to the mundane, I glazed my alef-shaped challah with egg wash. Long and lanky, it called out for adornment. The thing is, my kids will not eat challah with raisins, sesame seeds, or poppy seeds. (Such a shonda!) But I was committed to making it beautiful. So I reached up into the baking cabinet, grabbed the sugary rainbow sprinkles, and poured them generously onto my three-stranded Alef and thought, now the many are one.
As we enter yet another quiet COVID Shabbat, I long to be surrounded by a cacophony of voices. And I take comfort in thinking about the silence of revelation, and how it too contains all of Torah. May we each find a moment to reconnect to the truth that everything is one, emerging from the primordial Alef revealed from the mighty mouth of the Holy One at Sinai.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.