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Parashat Yitro 5775 — 02/04/2015

Parashat Yitro 5775 — 02/04/2015

Why was the Torah given on Mt. Sinai?  Mt. Sinai is not a very imposing mountain, nor is it in a very hospitable place.  In fact, it took Divine guidance and support just to get a nation of several million people to the location in one piece.  Why would Gd go through all this trouble?  And why didn’t Gd give us Torah when we were settled in our Land, where it was most applicable?

One answer that the Sages give is that Gd specifically chose a location that was open to all to make the point that the Torah is not the sole possession of one people – it really belongs to everyone.  Since the Torah is the blueprint of creation (“Gd looked into the Torah and created the world”), it actually can’t be anyone’s “possession.”

Another answer often given is that Mt. Sinai, like the similarly-named thornbush (sneh) where Moshe Rabbeinu first encountered Gd, is a humble, unassuming mountain, not very tall, not very impressive at all.  In the same way, for us to absorb Torah’s wisdom, it takes a great deal of humility.  The more we come to Torah full of our own ideas, the more we will leave Torah still full of our own ideas, but not Torah’s ideas!  Thus we say in the Shemoneh Esrei (in Sh’ma Koleinu): and from Thy presence do not send us away empty.  We ask for Gd to fill us up with His blessings, but we first have to empty ourselves out of our own agendas and attachments in order to become a vessel suitable to receive those blessings.

Rav Kook looks at Mt Sinai from another angle, based on another implication of the word Sinai:

What is Mt. Sinai?  The mountain that brought enmity (sin’ah) upon the nations of the world  (Shabbat 89b)

The fact that the Torah was not given to the Jewish people in their own land, but rather in a desert, in no-man’s land, is very signifcant.  This indicates that the inner content of the Torah is relevant to all peoples. … The Torah’s revelation on Mt. Sinai, as a neutral location belonging to none and thus belonging to all, emphasizes the disappointment and estrangement from Gd that the nations brought upon themselves by rejecting the Torah and its ethical;teachings.  It is for this reason that Mt. Sinai “brought enmity upon the nations of the world.”

(I might point out that sin’ah can also mean “hatred” and the Midrash also interprets Sinai as the mountain that made the nations of the world hate Israel for our special status.)

Our Tradition tells us that when Gd was ready to rreveal Torah, he offered it to the nations of the world, all of whom rejected it.  Finally, Israel accepted it.  Whether it was done willingly or not is a matter of dispute.  The Biblical text indicates that the people replied unanimously and enthusiastically that we would.  But there is another tradition that holds otherwise.  The text says that the Israelites stood “underneath the mountain” (b’tachtit hahar) (Ex 19:17).  Idiomatically it means they stood at the foot of the mountain, but the Rabbis read it literally – Gd held the mountain over their heads, saying, “If you accept the Torah, well and good, and if not, this will be your burial place.”  An offer they couldn’t refuse!

Why the urgency?  The Midrash continues that Gd threatened to return the universe to its original state of chaos if no nation would accept the Torah.  In fact, the Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 1:7) tells us that Gd created and destroyed many worlds before creating ours, and the underlying reason is that in those worlds, nobody was willing to accept Torah.  Apparently, our acceptance of Torah was, and is, of cosmic significance.

I think Rav Kook gives us a hint of what this significance might be when he tells us that “the inner content of Torah is relevant to all peoples.”  The “surface” level of Torah is the text we have with the 613 mitzvot that we are obliged, as Jews, to fulfill.  It seems to me that these are relevant to the Jewish people alone.  There is no requirement at all for the other nations of the world to observe anything but the 7 commandments that were given to Noah and his sons: not to steal, not to murder, not to engage in immoral sexual relationships, not to worship idols, not to blaspheme, not to eat the limb of a living animal, and the positive command to establish a system of justice.  Pretty basic stuff.  Shabbat, lulav and esrog, tithes and first fruits are not part of the basic package.

What then is this “inner content” that is common to all people?  Clearly it must be something structured in the nature of creation itself, something that transcends language and culture, religion and ethnicity.  This “something” is Gd, and I think the “inner content” of Torah of which Rav Kook speaks is the encounter of the individual human awareness with the infinite basis of creation, the Creator.  In this sense, Torah study is not the province of the Jewish people alone, although certainly, since only we are responsible for all 613 mitzvot, only we are obligated to study Torah in all its detail.  But the level of Torah that prepares us to experience Gd must be learned by all as a set of practical techniques to refine our awareness until we can literally see Gd’s presence in every little bit of creation.  Our job as a nation is to see to it that this inner content of Torah is universally available so that every human being can find both personal and communal fulfillment in the embrace of Gd.  Imagine what a world we can create!

The Sacks Haggadah

Essay 17: Begin With Shame, End With Praise

The title of this essay comes from the Talmud, which gives the basic form of the Seder: begin the narrative with our former, lower state, and end it with our latter, more evolved state.  Thus we begin “In the beginning our forefathers were  idol worshipers,” and “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”  We end with Gd releasing us from Egyptian slavery, bringing us to Mt. Sinai, revealing Himself to us and prescribing the way we are to worship Him alone and none other.

R. Sacks identifies two different approaches to narrating human history.  One is the mythological approach, where t he hero overcomes all the challenges placed in his way, wins the fair maiden, and everyone lives happily ever after.  The other is the tragic approach, in which hapless humans are caught up in a web of blind fate that cruelly smashes them to bits.  Niether of these approaches is authentically Jewish.  We certainly are not naïve enough to believe in fairy-tale endings.  Jewish history is littered with too many slaughtered corpses for that.  But neither do we believe that life is essentially random and meaningless.

We believe, rather, that there is a Gd in the universe, and that He is actively involved in the process of history.  Although Gd has a plan for our history, one that begins at a lower level and ends with a glorious, final Redemption, it is not a linear plan.  It is a plan that is characterized by our striving against the limitations of our nature until we transcend them.  It is a plan wherein we often fail, but which requires us to pick ourselves up after each failure and continue to strive forward.  It is, therefore, a view of creation that is based on hope and faith – faith in ourselves and faith in Gd that the awful separation between the Creator and His creation will finally be overcome.