A Holy Detour
Yitro (Exodus 18-20 )
Six weeks after leaving Egypt, the Jews arrived at Mount Sinai. In retrospect, this destination seems obvious. But how obvious was it to those who made the trip? Did they know there was a planned stop along their route to the Land of Israel? Did they fully understand the purpose of this stop?
We may say that the Exodus had two inter-related purposes. The first was to bring hundreds of years of slavery and suffering to an end. The second was to return the Jews to their ancestral homeland, to the land promised to their forefathers.
From the outset, these two objectives were intertwined in the vision and communication which Avraham had received, and which forged a covenant between him, his descendants, and God (Bereishit 15:13-21). The covenant stated that after years of hardship, the Land of Israel would be ours. However, the stop-over at Mount Sinai was mentioned only generations later, to Moshe:
"... And when you have freed the people from Egypt, you shall worship God at this mountain." (Shmot 3:12)
The nature of this lay-over at Sinai was never explained; we cannot help but wonder if the Jews even knew that it was on their itinerary.
During the various exchanges with Pharaoh, Moshe spoke of serving God and of celebrating a festival in the desert, but readers of the text might be tempted to think that this was a mere pretext, aimed at convincing Pharaoh to grant the Jews a three-day furlough. Moshe argued that it would be impossible for the Jews to worship God in Egypt; in fact, that is precisely what they did, in the final scene before the Exodus: On Passover Eve, the Israelites sacrificed to God and celebrated the first Jewish festival - in Egypt. Was it really necessary to go out into the desert to commune with God? Alternatively, couldn't the emancipated slaves have proceeded directly to their final destination, and received the Torah there? Was there some intrinsic reason to visit Mount Sinai?
Moshe was familiar with the place. He had experienced a personal revelation there; it was the place where he had received his "marching orders" - and more: It was a place where he had witnessed something wondrous, something that was beyond the laws of nature. He had been informed that this particular place is "holy ground" (Shmot 3:5).
The Jews, too, would experience a revelation there. They, too, would receive their "marching orders," and they, too, would become familiar with holiness, specifically at Mount Sinai.
While we cannot imagine Judaism without law, the stop at Sinai was far more than merely the location where the law was handed down to us. The choice of venue for the Revelation of the Law was very specific; the holiness of Sinai was an integral element of the Law they would receive, because this was not merely a set of laws that aimed at regulating society's proper functioning. If the Jewish people had illusions that they would be a nation like every other nation, that belief was dispelled as soon as they received their instructions for the preparation to receive the Law.
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.' These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel." (Shmot 19:5-6)
Something new would become the center of this new community: Holiness, the relationship to holiness, the awareness of the holy. The preparations to receive the Torah centered on holiness, because the nation had to become holy in order to achieve the awareness of holiness. They would become not just a nation, but a holy nation, a kingdom of kohanim.
The commandants they subsequently received were not exclusively concerned with serving God in the classic sense of ritual, prayer, or sacrifice. It is true that some of the Ten Commandments centered on service of God, including belief in one God, and a prohibition against idolatry. But becoming holy included emulating God by observing the Shabbat. It included unexpected things, such as honoring one's parents. And it included laws that deal with creating a just society. In a radical departure from other belief systems, the Law they would receive at Sinai described murder, theft, and coveting others' possessions as transgressions not only against one's fellow man, but as transgressions that concern God. The Torah proscribes these acts because we are holy - just as holy as the potential victims of these sins - and because the God who has designated us as priests demands this standard of behavior.
The experience of slavery made us sensitive to the plight of the weak and disenfranchised. As former slaves, the Jews might have anticipated that the laws they would receive would be designed to promote a long-term educational plan of sensitivity to others, particularly the disadvantaged, disenfranchised, weaker members of society. But the stop at Sinai did much more than that: It introduced the consciousness of holiness to the entire community. This unique consciousness imparts a completely new, radical approach to human society. The Torah was given to us at Sinai, at a place of holiness, and not anywhere else, in order to teach us that treating one another with decency is part of serving God. That is the how and the why of being a nation of kohanim, a holy nation.
The key to Judaism, then, is not secular humanism. Quite the opposite: Judaism, in a nutshell, is a commitment to holiness. This includes seeing the holiness in others, and dedicating ourselves to respecting the holiness of others. It includes dedication to creating and sustaining a vibrant, holy society. This is the concept that had to be internalized before we entered the Land of Israel, so that we could live as a holy People in a holy Land.
© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2018
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