Parshat Yitro contains the foundational experience on which all of Judaism rests — the revelation at Sinai. We repeat this section twice annually: this week, during the reading of the Torah, and in a few months on the festival of Shavuot, when we calendrically relive those events.
Our tradition always pairs the Torah reading with a haftarah that thematically parallels the primary reading. When challenged to find the analogue to Sinai, our Sages chose prophetic readings that dealt with the personal revelatory experiences of great prophets: Isaiah for Yitro, and Ezekiel for Shavuot. However, the two readings are starkly different: Isaiah’s description of his angelic dedication to prophecy is terse and almost matter of fact, while the opening chapter of Ezekiel is lush with detail, with an almost hallucinogenic tint to Ezekiel’s breathless verbal rendering of the mind-altering experience of revelation.
The Talmud is aware of this strange dichotomy, and offers the following intriguing distinction:
“Rava said: All that Ezekiel saw, Isaiah saw as well. To what may Ezekiel be compared? To a villager who saw the king. And to what may Isaiah be compared? To a city-dweller who saw the king” (Chagigah 13b).
Rava teaches that while the experience that both prophets beheld was identical, the presentation of them in scripture is quite different, just as two viewers of the same royal retinue may describe what happened to them differently. Maimonides in his philosophical work “The Guide for the Perplexed,” suggests that the city-dweller and villager are similes reflecting different levels of spiritual development, and that Isaiah was on a mystically superior level to Ezekiel.
Strikingly, the Maharsha (R. Shlomo Eideles, 16th-century Poland) does not understand this as a simile, but rather as a biographical observation about both prophets. Isaiah grew up in Jerusalem as a royal relative, while Ezekiel, according to the Maharsha, was a native of the village of Anatot. (This seems to be predicated on a Midrashic tradition that teaches that Ezekiel was a close relative of the prophet Jeremiah, who the Tanakh does indeed identify as a native of Anatot.) While the mystical revelation was indeed identical, the sophisticated and aristocratic Isaiah described it in a subtle, understated fashion, while Ezekiel’s rural and more humble origins, untouched by the pomp and circumstance of the royal court, led him to describe the angelic vision in a much more excited, almost naive way.
This observation about the perception of revelation is relevant for the Torah as a whole. Torah and the system of halacha makes objective demands of every Jew, which are identical. How we experience those mitzvot, though, is a highly personalized experience, and God expects us to observe His normative commands in a way that binds us to him filtered through the unique lens of our own experience. PJC
Rabbi Daniel Yolkut is the spiritual leader of Congregation Poale Zedeck. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.