February 17th: Yitro
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
When it comes to dramatic narratives, the author of the story of the Revelation at Mount Sinai is clearly calling out its importance. We all know the importance of the Ten Commandments, but, lest we not be sure, the Biblical narrator goes all out to remind us of the monumental significance of our encounter with the Divine. In Exodus 19, we have this lead up to God’s words:
“Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down up on it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, on the top of the mountain, and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.” (Exodus 19.18-20)
Then, after God has spoken, we have this concluding and emphatic description:
“All the people perceived the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the sound of the horn, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled, and stood afar off. And they said to Moses: ‘You speak with us and we will hear, but let not God speak with us, lest we die.’ And Moses said unto the people, ‘Fear not; for God is here to prove you, so that the fear of God will be upon you and you sin not.’ So the people stood afar off, and Moses drew near unto the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20.15-18)
If the notion of God speaking directly to the people is not enough, the narrator intensifies the magnitude of the meeting with these vivid and fantastic images.
A useful analogy can come from electricity: when Infinite power voltage is reduced/transformed into something a home electrical outlet can handle, there are bound to be some sparks and noise—and things could get scary. But, was fear the point: was frightening everyone God’s intention? Sort of.
Note the double use of the word fear in the second passage: “Fear not; for God is here to prove you, so that the fear of God will be upon you and you sin not.”
Some would interpret the concept of the fear of the Lord as being frightened of God, and there are certainly some religious thinkers who tremble in fear and try to spread that fear to others. However, the words of Moses tell us exactly the opposite. God’s dramatic and frightening presentation is not supposed to make us scared; rather it is to imbue us with a healthy understanding of the nature of things—that the decisions we make and the way we live our lives matter.
There is actually a semantic discussion about the Hebrew term Yir’a (yod resh alef). Sometimes it means fear, but other times it means awe or reverence. In the case of the term Yir’at Adonai, The Fear of the Lord, some people think of fear, but others think of a kind of reverence—a deep and abiding appreciation of the great power and complexity of the Creator and the creative process.
I read the incredible drama of this narrative as indicative of two lessons. First, the Infinity of God is ineffable—beyond the ability of human words and human thoughts to describe. So, all we can do is get as dramatic as possible and pull out all of our larger-than-life images. It is our human way of saying that this ultimate reality is beyond us and really awesome. Second, though we can only see the finite, we are bidden to perceive the Infinite within and around everything else. We are part of a greater sensibility, and we are fortunate when we can realize this. There is no reason to fear, but there is great reason to feel incredibly connected to both the finite and the Infinite. We are a part of both.