Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
The Oscars may have been on Sunday, but this week’s Torah portion contains the Ten Commandments – God’s block buster Revelation at Mount Sinai. Could it get any bigger than this? The Revelation at Sinai was the seminal moment where the people of Israel collectively encountered God. Or was it?
Dr. Tzvi Novick of the University of Notre Dame has another idea. He reminds us of a well known midrashic tradition which states that we accepted the covenant at Sinai under extreme duress:
“And they took their places at the foot (takh’tit) of the mountain” (Exod. 19:17) – Said R. Avdimi b. Chama b. Chasa: “It teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, turned the mountain over them like a tub, and said to them: ‘If you accept the Torah, well and good; and if not there will be your burial.’” [Talmud Bavli, Shab. 88a]
This is a troubling midrash, because if we accepted the covenant only under duress, then perhaps we might not consider it binding. As R. Acha b. Jacob teaches in the very next Talmudic passage: “From here is a great protest against the Torah.” If it was forced upon us, the entire Torah could be null and void. Why then would Rabbi Avdimi teach such a lesson?
Dr. Novick has a theory – one worth repeating. Looking at a series of tannaitic (early rabbinic) texts, Dr. Novick draws our attention to a connection between the Revelation at Sinai and the Parting of the Sea. The same language used by Avdimi (turning the mountain over Israel) is used to describe how the Sea was inverted and turned over Israel like a dome, allowing them safe passage underneath. Similarly, other tannaitic texts describe the thunder and lightning at Sinai in terrifying terms, and they specifically note that God turned the mountain over Israel to protect them from the lightning and thunder. According to these traditions, the Israelites willingly stepped under (takh’tit) the mountain to seek shelter.
As it turns out, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer had a long debate about whether the Parting of the Sea was greater than the Revelation at Sinai. After all, “this is my God” from Moses’ song of the sea (Exod. 15:2) is a powerful statement. At the Sea, we encounter God the warrior. At Sinai, we encounter God the lawgiver. Yet, in a monotheistic tradition, one attribute cannot be separated from the other. Both are aspects of God, present at all times. Avdimi highlights God the warrior, even when there is no one to fight. Perhaps he thought we needed the fear of God as a prime motivator.
Regardless – and thankfully, over time, the rabbis drew our attention less to the warrior aspect of God and more to the lawgiver image. Perhaps they understood the dangers of using God the warrior to incite us to war. Perhaps, they understood that at the Sea, we were passive recipients while at Sinai we were given rules upon which we can act and build our communities. No matter the motivation for their shift, the rabbis certainly understood that there was value in preserving Avdimi’s voice, and, that we needed to act so that the covenant would be willingly renewed for and by each new generation.
This week, as we reenact the Revelation at Sinai and hear the Ten Commandments chanted in synagogue, let’s remember not only to listen, but to act. Let us follow the example of Israel, who explicitly said in the Torah: “na’aseh v’nishmah.” We will do, and [then] we will hear [understand].” [Ex. 24:7]
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras