A teaching of Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger, from Sfas Emes, Parshat Yitro.
And all the people saw the voices… וכל העם ראים את הקולת Exodus 20:18
This means they saw the voice that said to each individual “I am the LORD your God” (1). Each one of the Children of Israel saw the root of his life-force, and saw with their own eyes the part of God’s soul that is found within each person. So they did not need to believe in the Ten Commandments, for they simply saw the voices. That is how it is when God speaks… The words of the Creator are not like those of flesh and blood, for God’s words were carved into their hearts. Thus it is written, “They saw the voices” — they saw that [the words] were fulfilled immediately, and their souls were made whole as they were drawn after the words. This is Oral Torah, as it is written, “You have planted eternal life within us” (2) — words of Torah were absorbed into their souls. This is the meaning of the verse “God is my strength and my stronghold” (3). Torah, called “my strength,” was made from the Children of Israel themselves, and so they become a “stronghold” (4).
1) Exodus 20:2; the “your” is in the singular 2) from the blessing after the Torah reading 3) Jeremiah 16:19, cited by Shemot Rabbah 27:4 4) The wordplay is even better in the Hebrew, where “my strength” is uzi and “my stronghold” is ma’uzi, which could also be read “from my strength”; that is, “from Torah” are we made into “strongholds,” God’s word made manifest.
Mysticism is often defined as a religion of personal experience, but the Jewish mystical tradition is decidedly tight-lipped when it comes to describing that experience. Every once in a while the Sfas Emes gives us little peeks into his own experience of God, and I think this is one. That is how it is when God speaks. We also see the Sfas Emes’ ubiquitous “inner point” or “life-force,” God within us, here equated with inner/oral Torah. Once again, what seems like two separate entities is revealed to be one: God without is God within, and Torah from God’s mouth is Torah from our own souls. So he concludes with an interpretation of three words from the prophet Jeremiah that evokes in my ear the teaching from the Zohar that “God, Torah, and Israel are one”: Hashem (God), uzi (my strength=Torah) uma’uzi (my stronghold=Israel). While we may not feel this identity as keenly as the Sfas Emes, he promises us that this experience of oneness awaits us.