Dvar Torah delivered by Morrie Levin on Shabbat, 20th Sh’vat 5776, 30th January 2016
This parsha has many many important sections. I tried to organize them by my concept of their importance in terms of effect on us – and on Judaism today, thus select the portion to focus on. Many Rabbis have selected aspects to focus on. Some focused on Jethro or the ten commandments Some mentioned the events at Mt. Sinai. Mt Sinai, to me, really crystalizes how we came to be, the root reason that Jews have truly become the holy people and the light of nations. A real sensual shock affecting all present — the 600,000 followers, Moses, and their descendants –and us– forever.
The parsha starts with a meeting — the 600,00 followers, Jethro, and Moses at Mount Sinai. Jethro -a Midianite priest – learns more about Moses, his beliefs, his interaction with the Pharaoh and the plagues. He was welcomed, well treated, (he was, after all, father in law) and gives excellent advice. We don’t have a clue as to why he did not stay and was not even officially recognized. He left before the main event, although Sforno thinks he came to become Moses’s follower.
But first, what were we before and after Mt. Sinai ? At this point in time there was no such thing as being Jewish. Within the multitude (600,000) were people who really followed the traditions of Abraham mixed with people who were more or less aware of the traditions and were willing to go along. In today’s terminology they would be called an ethnic group, which would be designated ethno-religious. You could question whether all fully understood or accepted God’s position and role (sole and unique).
There was an understanding of God and communication from God. God spoke to and directed our forefathers. Early in Exodus, the people (slaves in Egypt) cried out to God because the Egyptians were mistreating them.
Communication was always through messengers (Angels). Some practices, such as Brit Milah, from the covenant with Abraham were observed although there was no overall concept, no set of rules, for the people to follow. All were, of course, aware of and more or less understood the plagues. Sforno points out that the Egyptians also learned from the plagues– that the Israelite God was supreme.
Moses, we know, was saved from death and raised as Egyptian royalty. We know his story till now: going to and living in Midian and being selected by God to free the Israelites. Moses was the first (and only) person to directly communicate with God . Until now God communicated via angels. Now God enters the picture directly. God, of course, had a plan: creating a holy nation: involving Moses, the multitude and their offspring .
For the multitude to be really involved, an experience was necessary. Think of the burning bush and Moses: the experience directly affected his beliefs and actions . For the multitude, it began with feeling as if they were traveling on wings of eagles—making them aware that they were different from all other peoples.
So we now have the multitude camped at Mt. Sinai. People who have twice experienced God’s power, seen the effect of the ten plagues on the Pharaoh and experienced the trip to Mt. Sinai. They were asked to and they agreed to follow God’s rules in the future. They were also given special rules relative to the mountain, necessary because they were to experience God face to face. Sforno empahasizes God’s orders. He describes areas they could not enter partly because of crowds and safety needs and emphasizes God’s orders that special cleansing was necessary and entering a forbidden area meant death. Moses said—Do not be afraid; God has come to test you in order that the fear of God may be ever with you.
There were many related experiences at Mt. Sinai. God spoke via thunder and a clarion to the multitude but never actually appeared and revealed himself as a cloud of smoke. The cloud of smoke appears later on, over the Mishkan and even later over Solomon’s Temple. God gave Moses the ten commandments, dictating belief in God, observance of God an proper behavior between people. They accepted Moses as speaking with and transmitting God’s messages. It is not clear, given the nature of the mixed multitude what they were before and therefore what they converted from, but now they, children and adults belonged directly and solely to God.
According to Rav Kook, at Mt. Sinai, at this time, a mass conversion took place. The people accepted God’s role in their future. It is interesting that Rav Kook recognizes this very very simple first and huge conversion but is seen as a strong proponent today of conversion linked with a great deal of individual study and exposure to Jewish practice. Here, God selected the Israelites –his special treasure- as a holy people to teach the rest of the peoples God’s rules and principles. I submit that this conversion was somehow implanted in the genes at Mt Sinai and somehow affected all future generations. What did they convert to? Nothing. Religion with the one God concept had no structure there and then. We know it now as Judaism- being Jewish. This had no meaning then and there except complete acceptance of the God they had just agreed to. They felt that God would provide basic rules that they had agreed to hear and obey.
Judaism was initiated. They would soon receive the ten commandments and eventually the Tanach . The concept of Shabbat and the observance of the ten commandments would become part of their – our – lives. You cannot say that after many many modifications they would have the Judaism of today. Virtually all “new” ideologies or practices are based on modifications of something that came before. However, at this time and place, there was no real, formal set of procedures and beliefs to modify. I am sure there were 6oo,ooo opinions. Most parashot tell how to be Jewish.
To me this part of this parsha makes me understand the importance of the beginning, how we came to be, what we are, and the importance of our influence on our offspring. In one sense, Spinoza puts it best: Judaism is a perspective on life. It is not the outcome of a doctrine but rather of concrete events, actions and insights of a people who experienced an encounter with God within the confines of history. From one point of view this sounds fine. There is another perspective: God started his plan 3000 years ago and today we are seeing its effects.
This parsha makes you think when you say “Shabbat Shalom”.