By Rabbi Jon Cutler
“The grand premise of religion is that man is able to surpass himself; that man who is part of this world may enter into a relationship with Him who is greater than the world.” (Abraham Joshua Herschel)
Chapters 19 and 20 in this week’s Torah reading, Yitro, are among the most difficult and mysterious narratives in the whole of Torah. God reveals himself on Mount Sinai to the people of Israel using his “voice,” which is heard through a mountain enshrouded by smoke and fire. These few verses may be among all the verses in Torah which both conceals and defines.
God appears in the earthly world, the world of flesh and bone, the world of mortality and Moses on Mount Sinai enters the transcendent world of angels and immorality, a world unfettered by time and space.
And when God speaks, shattering the barrier that exists between the world of flesh, the Torah tells us: “all the people who were in the camp trembled.” (Exodus 19: 16) After the recitation of the Decalogue, the Torah further tells us “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 [Moses] speak to us, and we will obey, but let not God speak to us, lest we die.’” (Exodus 20: 15-16)
After a pause in the narrative, the Torah picks up the story to tell us that Moses together with Aaron, his two sons and a group of elders numbering 70 ascended and “they beheld God, and they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24: 11)
It was as though the veil that separated the mortal from the immortal world had been lifted. But only Moses could go up the mountain, into the divine realm, spending 40 days and nights concealed and covered by the cloud enshrouded over the mountain. Moses had crossed over and disappeared into the realm of the unknown.
The Midrash elaborates the Torah account. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi envisions Moses, after ascending the mountain, standing in the divine domain. And Moses’ presence is immediately challenged. The ministering angels object to Moses’ presence saying: “what business does one born of woman have in our midst.”
Moses is an intruder, a mortal figure in a world of pure spirit and immateriality. God replies that Moses has come to receive the Torah, to which the angels protested by proclaiming “this precious item which has been in Your possession since before creation You will now give to mere flesh and blood?”
At this point in Rabbi Joshua’s ingenious story, God turns to Moses and asks him to justify why He, God, should give the Torah to Moses and the children of Israel. That’s an odd request. Why should God have to justify anything He does? Master of the divine world, He need only speak, and it becomes. He commands, and it is done.
But Moses steps forward and asks God about the content of the Torah. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 20:2) and turning to the angels Moses declares “Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved there?” The Torah has nothing to do with your experiences. What else is written in the Torah, Moses asks? God replies, “You shall have no other gods beside me.” (Exodus 20:3)
Turning to the angels Moses says: “Do you live among idol worshippers?” And Moses goes down the list of commandments. None of them apply to this otherworldly region that Moses has entered.
The angels having been overcome, concede and Moses returns with the tablets, the letters having been engraved onto the tablets by the finger of God. (Exodus 31:18)
Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish recognized that the tablets of stone upon which were engraved the letters of the commandments were a symbol that connected this world and the transcendent world that Moses had just left. The tablets were the physical connection between the world of flesh and blood and the world of the transcendent, the symbol linking the two realms.
And hence Shimon ben Lakish described the spiritual essence of those letters as written with black fire upon white fire, sealed with fire and embraced with bands of fire. The Torah was a fusing between the physical and the spiritual, between the substance of human life, and the profound words with its spiritual power to lift the human being into a life of sanctity and wonder. (Jerusalem Talmud, Shekalim 6:1)
Never again would God reach down and lift the veil between this world and the world of the ministering angels. Never again would God reveal himself so openly, to an entire people, awe-inspiring the senses, and allowing the Divine to descend from the heavenly world into the world of flesh and blood.
It is impossible to imagine, that this story can only approximate the experience of revelation. Even after those who experienced the moment when the finger of God touched the living letters inscribed on stone, the Israelites still turned to a golden calf.
Hence, we humans, live in the eternal struggle between the flesh and the Divine, the worldly and the heavenly, the absurd and the transcendent. And every rabbi, every student, every scholar who studies the Torah brings to life new interpretations which bridge once again the worldly and the heavenly, the flesh and the Divine, the reenactment of Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah.
Rabbi Jon Cutler is co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and rabbi of Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.