The revelation at Sinai allows us to be concerned with others rather than just ourselves.
The Talmud tells the story of Yosef, the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who was “dead” for a short period of time and then was resuscitated, what we might call a near death experience.
When Yosef recovered enough to hear the voice of his father by his bedside, we read, “His father asked, ‘What did you see?’” The young man responded with fear in his eyes: “I saw an upside-down world.”
His father, resting his hand upon his son’s shoulder, comforted him and said, “My son, have no fear. You saw a clear world.” Meaning, you saw things as they really should be, the world — our world — really is upside-down, “better you know that, than you should live in fear.”
Rabbi Yehoshua lived in the third century in Israel at a time when Rome dominated and devastated the Jewish community. It was a world of “totality” instead of a world of “infinity.” A world that attempted to reduce everything to “sameness,” rather than to respect one’s “otherness.” It was a world where might made right.
It is in this context that we can understand his words to his son. “Yes, my son, the upside-down world in which we live is harsh, but that is not the way God wants our world to be.” The vision you had is the opposite of the way we live now, but your vision is the way God wants us to live.
Emanuel Levinas, a 20th century French Jewish philosopher, looked at the Western world and realized that there are two main influences: the Hebrew Bible and Western philosophy.
Moreover, he believed that there is a fundamental difference in these world views. Levinas felt much of Western philosophy was epitomized by Rene Descartes, who wrote, “I think, therefore I am.” For Levinas, this was a world of “totality” instead of a world of “infinity,” a world that attempts to reduce everything to “sameness” rather than to respect one’s “otherness.” Levinas wrote that “I think” comes down to “I can” — to an appropriation of what is, to an exploitation of reality. It is, he said, “a philosophy of power.”
For Levinas, the fundamental premise on which Judaism is based is the revelation at Sinai, which we read in Yitro this week, when God calls to the Israelites. That call demands a response.
Revelation teaches us how to interact with the other. Other is the other person as well as God. This face-to-face encounter at Sinai with the other becomes the basis for all future relationships. I stop thinking only of myself and begin to be concerned with others. What comes out of this encounter is a responsibility toward the other — that responsibility being ethical behavior, leading to a “clear world” that is not “upside down.”
Rabbi Robert Gamer is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park.