The Revelations at Sinai
This shiur is dedicated in memory of Sol Okon z"l, on the occasion of his yahrzeit.
The closing event of last week's Parasha was the battle against Amalek. This marauding nomadic tribe had attacked the people of Israel while they were journeying in the wilderness of Refidim, and according to the account in the Book of Devarim (25:17-19) had concentrated their assault on the weak and weary stragglers who trailed behind the rest of the camp. Yehoshua, at Moshe's behest, raised a force and repelled the aggressor, and in the aftermath of the confrontation Moshe set up a memorial altar and invoked God's oath of retribution against the perpetrator. So concluded the Parasha of BeShalach.
This week's Parasha opens with the journey of Yitro from his desert home of Midian, a trek inspired by the news of Israel's exodus from Egypt. Accompanied by Tzippora, Moshe's wife, as well as by Moshe's two sons, Yitro sets out for the "wilderness of God's mountain" at Chorev where the people of Israel are encamped. Moshe meets his father-in-law, and recounts to him all that God had done to Pharaoh and Egypt on behalf of Israel. He also describes to Yitro their more recent adventures along the route, from all of which God had preserved them. Yitro, gladdened by the news, blesses God and then proclaims His greatness and uniqueness above all other gods. He proceeds to prepare an offering, and Aharon and the elders of Yisrael join him for a sacrificial meal before God.
On the morrow, Moshe adjudicates the peoples' civil suits, and is exhaustingly engaged in doing so from the morning until the evening. Yitro is surprised that there are no other official judges assisting Moshe in his work, and suggests that a hierarchical judicial system be established utilizing suitable candidates drawn from the people. This, he proposes, would allow the more straightforward cases to be heard before these other officials; Moshe, whose expertise would be called upon only for the more difficult cases, would thus be able to devote the majority of his energies to the more pressing need of instructing the people in God's laws. Moshe graciously accepts his father-in-law's advice and begins the process of establishing such a system. The first section of the Parasha concludes with Moshe sending his father-in-law on his way, "and he returned to his land."
YITRO'S VISIT AS INTRODUCTION TO THE REVELATION
The subsequent section of the Parasha is the most momentous in the Book of Shemot: the events surrounding the Revelation at Sinai. As the people camp at the foot of Mount Sinai, God recounts how He had taken them out of Egypt and borne them on 'eagle's wings' to bring them to this place. He offers them the covenant of being obedient to His Torah, thereby becoming His special treasure among the nations. The people, in unison, accept, and after intense preparation, they stand to witness the awesome spectacle of the Decalogue.
The ordering of the Parasha's passages – Yitro's journey at news of God's mighty works, his pivotal role in restructuring the judiciary, the preparations of the people for the receiving of the Torah – is eminently comprehensible and surely more than the result of mere chronology of events. As Israel stands at Sinai, soon to witness the grandeur of God's glory, they must faithfully recall the example of their ally, Moshe's father-in-law, who had joined them only a short time before. Yitro set forth from Midian spiritually spurred by the deeds of Israel's God, but his commitment to sharing the people's destiny was cemented not by that sincere exhilaration but rather by his introduction of statutes and laws. The sensible and wise counsel to set up a system of civil courts may have addressed a pressing need that was mundane in the extreme and hardly the grist for inspiration, but it was that advice, rather than the initial fervor that first drew him to the wilderness of Chorev, that won for Yitro his place with the people and their God. Thus, as Israel themselves subsequently stand to experience the transcendent event of hearing God's voice, they are to bear in mind Yitro's valuable lesson: precious moments of inspiration will not, in and of themselves, nourish and maintain a meaningful connection with the Creator. Only when that passionate energy is wisely tempered (but not stifled!) by a sustaining structure of deeds and practices, a "judiciary" of laws, does it have the ability to transform us.
THE STRUCTURE OF THE PARASHA
There is, of course, another connection that may be drawn to the narrative of the Revelation at Sinai that follows Yitro's visit. This time, though, we must consider not the implications of a juxtaposition of sections but rather of similar but textually unrelated motifs. In order to appreciate this more subtle parallel, we must first familiarize ourselves with the structure of our Parasha. Chapter 19 of Sefer Shemot, containing at its core the proclamation of the Decalogue, can be conveniently broken down into the following elements:
1) 19:1-2 – an introductory section that describes the chronological and geographic background. In the third month after the Exodus from Egypt, the people entered the wilderness of Sinai and encamped opposite the mountain.
2) 19:19:3-8 – God's first communication to Moshe and Moshe's words to the people. After ascending the mountain, Moshe is told by God to inform the people concerning the purpose of their arrival at Sinai: they are to become His special treasure from among the nations, a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation." The people welcome God's overture and Moshe returns to Sinai's summit with their affirmative response.
3) 19:9-15 – God's second communication to Moshe and Moshe's words to the people. This time, God indicates that as a result of His revelation, the people will forever acknowledge the veracity of Moshe's prophecy. He further demands that the people sanctify themselves by ritual immersion, and prepare for the events of the third day. They are not to ascend the mountain on pain of death, for God's presence will be upon it. Moshe descends to the people once again and they ready themselves as directed.
4) 19:16-19 – the prelude to God's descent and revelation. As the third day dawns, the summit of Sinai is obscured by thick cloud, and the stillness of the morning is punctuated by bursts of thunder, flashes of lightening, and the shrill sound of the shofar. The mountain smokes ominously and Moshe is again summoned to the peak.
5) 19:20-25 – the final warning to the people. God again emphasizes to Moshe that he must warn the people as well as the Kohanim to maintain their distance from the mountain. Although Moshe indicates that his initial cautions have been heeded, God is adamant that they must be warned again. Moshe dutifully descends and tells the people.
6) 20:1-13 – the Decalogue. God proclaims His ten utterances that together constitute the foundations of His Torah and the guiding principles of the people of Israel for evermore. These ten principles outline the fundamentals of our relationship with God as well as with our fellows.
7) 20:14-17 – the aftermath. The people tremble in fear at the spectacle of God's revelation and draw back from the mountain. They ask Moshe to speak in God's stead, lest they perish. Moshe fortifies them with words of encouragement and then ascends to the thick cloud that covers the mountain.
8) 20:18-22 – the conclusion of the events. God tells Moshe to remind the people of their special status in having heard His voice from heaven. He then goes on to detail further ritual laws concerning idolatry and proper worship, before outlining the civil statutes that form the bulk of next week's Parashat Mishpatim.
THE ESSENCE OF THE MATTER
While there is much to discuss concerning each one of these sections, for now let us simply take note of their overall thrust and direction. Essentially, the narratives consist of a core revelatory experience that is bracketed by an introduction as well as conclusion. The introduction is itself precipitated by a journey into the wilderness, and contains a statement of mission, a series of preparations including "sanctification" and respect for the mountain's boundaries, and the inspiring but simultaneously threatening display of fire and smoke. The conclusion, precipitated by Israel's fear and reluctance to further hear God's voice, reinforces the theme of their special mission before launching into the next but related topic of ritual and civil laws.
The perceptive reader will, of course, notice that we have already come across this sequence of events, albeit under circumstances seemingly far-removed from the revelation at Sinai. Recall that after young Moshe had struck down the Egyptian taskmaster and fled Pharaoh's wrath, he had arrived at Midian (2:15). There, he had rescued the daughters of Yitro, the Priest of Midian, from the selfish shepherds, and had then watered their sheep. Eventually, he had married one of the daughters named Tzippora and in Midian he remained to tend the sheep, even as his brethren continued to groan under the burdens imposed by the cruel taskmasters. Eventually, a fateful day arrived, for Moshe led the sheep deep into the wilderness in search of pasture, until he arrived (by serendipity?) at the "mountain of God at Chorev" (3:1).
MOSHE'S REVELATION AT SINAI
There, an angel of God appeared to him out of the midst of the burning bush, and Moshe was drawn by the singular spectacle to approach. God called to him out of the fire and immediately bid him to remove his footgear, "for the place upon which you stand is hallowed ground." Moshe heeded the Divine call, but fearfully he hid his face from the fiery manifestation. God proclaimed Himself to the startled shepherd as the "God of your ancestors, Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'acov" (3:6) and then called upon him to go to Pharaoh to rescue the people in His name. Moshe was utterly reluctant, and God proceeded to slowly, incrementally but inexorably conquer his hesitation, eventually imposing the mission upon him by the sheer coercion of His will, for Moshe would not otherwise yield. Thus did Moshe become God's prophet and the liberator of Israel from Egypt, not with enthusiasm and fervor, but rather with a great disinclination bordering on dread!
In this earlier story of Moshe's "personal" revelation, we note that there are many parallel motifs to the events at Sinai. Like the people afterwards, Moshe's arrival was preceded by a cleansing journey through the barren wilderness, forever the place of introspection and thought. Like Israel later, Moshe's vision of God was introduced by a directive to respect the sacredness of the locale, and was accompanied by a startling but simultaneously riveting display of fire. Like the "house of Ya'acov" subsequently, the Divine mission was received by Moshe with ambivalence, for though he could not but be seized by the experience of God's revelation, he would not willingly, much less cheerfully, become God's messenger. And like his compatriots after him, Moshe eventually accepted his ineluctable destiny to exhort and to guide, to instruct and to lead, to embrace God's mission and to prevail.
THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE NATION
It is the Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) who most clearly implies this intrinsic linkage of the events, the personal and the national, by drawing our attention to a curious and unusual word. At Chorev, Moshe was first attracted to God's revelation by the burning bush or so-called "sneh", a lowly and humble plant of little pretensions, but nevertheless possessing a great will to survive in surroundings barren and inhospitable. Concerning the etymology of this rare word, Ibn Ezra remarks:
In my opinion, all "snehs" are of one species, a type of dry thorn bush, and so is the term used in Arabic. Similarly, MOUNT SINAI IS SO-CALLED ON ACCOUNT OF THE "SNEH", (for these bushes tend to grow in arid and rocky places) (commentary to 3:2).
How striking, then, that the mountain of God's revelation, from upon whose summit He first proclaimed His laws to the people of Israel, is remembered by a pointed reference to Moshe's earlier revelation on that very spot. The message could not be more clear: though when we speak of Sinai, we tend to (justifiably) emphasize its place in our collective conscience and consequently recall the destiny of the PEOPLE of Israel to assume God's mission by fulfilling the mitzvot of the Torah, there is another dimension to that transcendent event. The INDIVIDUAL, it seems, is also called by God, in a voice no less thundering or persuasive than that employed at Sinai, to embrace his or her personal mission of becoming God's emissary in the world. This is accomplished by living a life of sanctity and meaning, by setting an example of goodness and compassion, by striving to passionately represent God even before people and under circumstances that stretch one's ability to maintain Godliness and spiritual composure. The dual references of our section then, the textual link to Yitro and the thematic link to Moshe, together inform and reinforce the awesome experience of hearing God's words. The ancient legacy of Sinai, when faithfully grasped by the individual Jew and proudly proclaimed by the people of Israel, can only continue to inspire and to transform the world.