At the Mountain: Intensity and Purpose

January 25th: Yitro
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This is the portion where we stand at Mount Sinai and hear the Eternal One thunder the words we know as the Ten Commandments. Beginning with, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: you shall have no other gods besides Me”  (Exodus 20.2-3), the Torah makes it very clear God’s words are at the center of our Divine purpose—and our relationship with the Divine.

 Shortly before the actual revelation, the Lord explains to Moses the nature and purpose of the relationship which is now being made official: “…I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Me. Now, then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19.4-6) The Ten Commandments are not just words; they are the basis of a covenantal partnership.

 The intensity of the experience at the mountain—a volcano like fire at the top and God’s words thundering from On High—frightens the people, and they shrink back from the Divine. “All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. ‘You speak to us,’ they said to Moses, ‘and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’” (Exodus 20.15-16)

 This is an early case of people dosing themselves with religion—a process in which all human beings are involved. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we decide how much religion or spirituality is helpful, inspiring, perhaps even challenging? How much, on the other hand, is too much for us—too much or unnecessary or perhaps even distracting from other important components of life? All of us need some spiritualty, so the key is determining how much we require.

 Some of us thrive on more religion; it is just the way we are. So, as much as our Tradition urges us to increase our religious thinking and observance, the Tradition also teaches us limits. Notice the famous proverb from Simon the Righteous in Pirke Avot (1.2): “On three things does the world stand: on Torah, on Worship, and on Deeds of Lovingkindness.” This ancient founder of Rabbinic Judaism certainly sees religion—Torah and Worship—as important, but it is not the only important component of life. As Reb Shimon instructs us, going out into the world and doing good deeds is also vital.

 Perhaps this is what God was thinking when God repeatedly tells Moses to descend from the mountain—or from the intimacy of a direct encounter with God—and return to the people. This is not to say that God does not enjoy Moses’ company but rather that God sees the relationship with Moses as a conduit for a greater relationship with the people.

 This comes out again in Moses’ review of Israelite history in Deuteronomy (1.6-8): “The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb (another name for Mount Sinai), saying: ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill county of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, the hill country, the Shephelah, the Negeb, the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, as far as the Great River, the river Euphrates. Go, take possession of the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them.’”

 Some focus on the territorial aspects of the Deuteronomy passage, wondering about why we never actually obeyed the mitzvah and took possession of all this land. Some modern zealots insist that it was and is a sin to refuse to take over the entire Middle East. Others realize that this mitzvah was and is impossible—that, if God actually intends it as a mitzvah to perform, it is for a time in the distant future. Halachah does not consider every mitzvah it a present expectation: some must wait until God makes them possible.

 There is, however, another way to look at the passage. Just as God instructs Moses to descend from the mountain in order to instruct the people, this passage could be God’s way of sending the people out to teach the world. The time with God in the wilderness—both at the mountain and in the years establishing the holy community—is precious, but that time is preparatory, intended to help Israel learn how to bring God’s words and God’s ways to the world.

 As we pursue our lives, finding a balance among all of life important components, let us not forget the precious relationship that we can have with the Divine. It is a relationship that our religion can help us develop and nurture. But let us also remember God’s stated desire that we take the good and holy thoughts of our faith and bring them to life in the world.