Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise, Shabbat, 22nd Sh’vat 5777, 18th February 2017
This is the moment to which the whole story of the Exodus has been leading and the high point of the Hebrew people’s history. The revelation at Mt. Sinai, the giving of the Torah and the establishment of the Children of Israel as the chosen people with a special relationship with God.
It is special in more ways than one. Until now, and afterwards as well, when God wants to say something He usually does so to one person. He relays His message in a dream or a vision, as in today’s haftarah from Isaiah.
Here, we have a revelation to all the people at the same time. Moshe is the messenger running between God and the people, transmitting His orders to the people and reporting their responses to Him. There is a period of waiting, of preparation with instructions of what to do and not to do.
And when the moment comes, all of the Israelites are gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai and all of them hear the word of the Lord. The midrash says that each person heard it according to his own abilities to understand, so that no two people heard the exact same thing. But they were all there, they could all say that they were involved in the most overwhelming event of all times.
And we can add one more element. They were all in agreement. This is what they wanted, what they yearned for. This was, perhaps, the first – and the last – time that the nation of Israel in all its incarnations over the millennia, was in total agreement about anything.
But it didn’t last, this unity of feeling and emotion. By the end of the Ten Commandments most of the people had had enough. The people said, We have seen that we can hear the voice of God and not die – but let’s not push our luck. You, Moshe, you talk to us and we’ll be able to absorb it better. The spell was broken, unity unraveled and we have been at odds with ourselves ever since!
The inclusive nature of this event at Mt. Sinai has many aspects in addition to the theological side, as Professor Shimon Spero of Bar Ilan University noted. It reflects social unity, as the people all said we shall do and we shall listen. And this acceptance also reflects a legal aspect – the people were not forced to accept, they accepted of their own free will.
At the same time, the events at Mt. Sinai intentionally brought about a change in the role of Moshe as leader. Until Sinai, as Rabbi Ari Kahn notes, Moshe was actually a second- or third-fiddle. He received the messages from God, but it was Aharon who spoke God’s words. He was given signs and omens to perform but it was his staff, his stick, that seemed to have the magic.
At Sinai, Moshe became Moshe Rabeinu – our teacher. The parsha says “So that the nation will hear when I speak to you, and they will believe you, forever. He was to be the source of interpretation of the laws and their application in daily life. He became the figure that everyone looked to and the source that revealed divine intent and malcontent.
This explanation creates a problem with the sequence of events in our parsha. The parsha begins with the arrival of Yitro who sees Moshe sitting and handing out justice person by person, dealing with all the minutiae of daily life. But the laws were given at Sinai, after this event. And next week’s parsha, Mishpatim (judgments), begins the long list of mitzvoth and legal niceties that Moshe was dealing with at the beginning of our parsha, before the revelation at Mt. Sinai.
How they figure it I don’t know, but Chazal explain that Yitro actually visited Moshe in the fall, and the Torah was given in the spring. But because Yitro emphasized the importance of the exodus and of God’s great acts for the Israelites, his visit was inserted here.
This is just a small detail. Whatever the actual order, the importance of the events remains. We no longer have the unity of spirit that marked Mt. Sinai, but for the most part we have people who care deeply about our country, our people, our future. The fact that no two groups can agree about what constitutes the best way to ensure the safety and strength of our people does not mean that any of the groups is less concerned about our future.
This can be said about most democratic states. Even the leading country of the western world (that’s not us, for those who were wondering) has several approaches about how to make the country great again or keep it great, depending on their viewpoint. So we should be different?
That being said, underlying different approaches of all stripes, there has to be adherence to our basic tenets and fundamental morals. This does not mean bending over backwards to favor others over ourselves, but it also does not mean obliterating our obligations and creating alternative facts on which we calibrate our moral compass.
For us, this derives from the Torah with its Mishpatim that we, through our ancestors, received and willingly accepted way back when at Mt. Sinai.
How we do this remains the conundrum, and also explains why we will continue to disagree, vehemently at times, with one another. But we were all there, we are all expected to base ourselves on the same set of laws, and we all want what’s good for us as a people. These common elements should provide enough of a basis on which to build tolerance, trust and mutual respect. The fact that it doesn’t is a cause for concern.