Shemot (Ex) 18:1-20:23
One of the best ways of looking at the covenant God was making with Israel in this parashah is as a wedding. To see Israel as the Bride of G-d will put a new perspective on the covenant and change our attitude towards the Torah itself. Many of us, having been brought up in the Christian church, were taught to view the Torah negatively. It is ‘Law’, it is oppressive, it is judgmental, it is the opposite of ‘grace’ and of the teachings of the Messiah Himself. We have now learned that is not the case. The Messiah is the ‘Torah made flesh’, He taught and lived Torah and encouraged others to do the same. So in reevaluating our attitude towards Torah, it is helpful to change our view of Torah from that of a bunch of rules and regulations an outside authority (YHWH) imposes on us, to a living, breathing marriage relationship where each party has a vested interest in serving and blessing the other.
In a wedding, particularly a Jewish one, there is a process to go through. First, there is a statement of intention made by the groom, who in our case is YHWH. His intentions are stated in Exodus 6:6-7 which comprise the four “I will” promises of Pesach. Next, the bride (Israel) is separated in preparation for the wedding. G-d accomplished this throughout the Exodus and bringing Israel out into the desert. This began the process of her sanctification, of setting her apart. It made her unavailable to others (Egypt) and it removed outside temptation. Much of what is contained in the rest of Torah will be concerned with this separation. This also was the time when G-d began to outline what the marriage would be like. He told Israel that she would be His prized possession and that she would be a holy nation and a royal priesthood. This would be a fulfillment of what G-d had promised Avraham, that his descendants would be a blessing to all the nations.
At the foot of Mt Sinai the wedding took place. It began, as traditional Jewish weddings do, with a mikveh; all the people were told to wash and be ready for what was to come. They came to the Groom under the Chuppah, the wedding canopy which G-d had provided with the great cloud over the mountain. And then came the moment they were all waiting for, the exchange of covenant intentions and the signing of the Ketubah. This was the Ten Words (Commandments) spoken by G-d from the cloud to all of Israel, on which all the rest of Torah is based. Next there was the Token of the covenant, the ring in our day. Ex 31:13 tells us that this sign is Shabbat. And finally, God began to make provisions for their dwelling together in a house, the Mishkan.
Why this illustration? Because if we view our covenant relationship with G-d as a marriage covenant rather than a king/slave relationship, it changes our attitude toward G-d and our duty under the terms of the covenant. In a marriage, we do not look at our obligations to our spouse as a burden but as a joy. We seek to do the things that please our spouse not because we have to but because we want to, because we love them. Our relationship with G-d is the same way. As our ‘marriage partner’, He has shown us what is pleasing to Him (Torah). We perform the mitzvot because we love Him and want to please Him just as He made promises to Israel regarding their health and prosperity and mission because that’s what pleased them (and us!). We serve Him because we love Him and because He loves us, just as we serve and bless our spouses because we love them and are loved by them. Torah is there to show us how to properly express that love just as when we talk with our spouses, they tell us how they desire to be loved, appreciated and shown affection. If we have that kind of attitude toward G-d, we can’t help but be joyful servants of the Almighty, willingly doing anything we can to please Him. No mitzvot will be burdensome or inconvenient, their performance will be a great privilege for we will have His love for us and our love for Him on our minds continually. And that is the attitude and motivation that makes a true son or daughter of Avraham.
This parasha reintroduces Yitro, Moshe’s father in law. He has spent the better part of a year away from his family, he has become the leader of this multitude and has conversed intimately with G-d on a regular basis. And Yitro says “I, your father in law Yitro am coming to you, and your wife and her two sons.” Rashi, citing the Mechilta, says that the message meant, “If you do not want to come and greet me, come for the sake of your wife, and if you do not want to come to greet your wife, come for the sake of her sons.” Why such a message?
Rabbi Ziv says that the reason for the message is Yitro’s spiritual understanding. He was a philosopher and a great seeker of truth. He has learned the ways of many idolatrous systems and found them wanting until he found the G-d of Israel. But until he began to learn the ways of the Almighty through Torah, he did not see how one could attain a high spiritual level and still remain connected to this world and to other people. He originally thought once one achieved a high level of ‘spirituality’ one would be withdrawn from the world. He learned otherwise and wanted Moshe to understand this as well. Though Moshe would soon be spending time on the mountain and in the tent in intimate contact with G-d in a way no other has, he needed to fulfill his duties to his family and children and his fellow human beings as well.
Too often in our quest for knowledge or a high ‘spiritual level’, in our desire for theology and understanding, we lose focus on that which is really important. The ten commandments, which are part of this week’s parasha and are the foundation for the rest of Torah and the basis for a righteous life, are not theology. They are not philosophical essays on the nature of the universe, the character of G-d, the makeup of man, heaven, hell or anything else that may occupy our studies which we may think so important. They are about relationships, our relationship with G-d and our relationship with each other. They are about action; do this, don’t do that. And if these things are done, then one will know about the character of G-d because we will be acting according to it. One will know about the nature of man because we will be living out the image that is within us. Heaven and hell will take care of themselves.
All the knowledge in the world will mean nothing if we didn’t take the time to listen to our brother, if we did not take our nose out of a book long enough to help a hurting sister, if we couldn’t tear ourselves away from the computer long enough to hug our children, if we were so concerned about winning the argument that we lost a friend, or if we categorized people in a way that we miss the blessing that G-d may desire to give us through them. We all have our ‘pet theologies’ and we are independent thinkers, that is why were are where we are. But not everyone has been where we have, not everyone knows what we know, not everything that is important to us is important to everyone else when it is important to us. And five years from now, that which is so important to you may turn out to be wrong!
So let’s concentrate on that which brings us together. Let us be discerning about our knowledge and it’s supposed importance. Study, yes, I encourage all of us to continue to learn and internalize scripture through study. But let us remember that which is most important-relationship. Our brothers and sisters and even strangers that need our love and compassion. May we always make the time to show it to them.
Our Parasha contains what is probably the best known passage in the Torah, the ‘ten commandments’, the essence of the Torah. Their pronouncement is accompanied by thunder, lightning and fire. The people hear the voice of YHVH presenting the essence of His covenant with them. It is quite a spectacle. Unfortunately it did not make enough of an impression to keep Israel on the ‘straight and narrow’, as we will find out in succeeding parashot.
Because this was such an intensive event, a truly unique interaction with the Creator, perhaps it would be a good idea to look at how we view such experiences. If you are part of a congregation, perhaps you read the parashot in their entirety every week. We read the words in English or Hebrew that describe these transcending events; Mt. Sinai, the burning bush, the tent of meeting, Avrams visitors and many others. We study the stories of their conversations with God. We read the prophets and try to make sense of the visions of Isaiah, Ezekiel or Yochannon. We read and we try to understand, we attempt to put ourselves in their position, we study and dissect the words to try to gain some enlightenment about God and his relationship to us. We, as did the rabbis, priests and pastors before us, study the words to gain knowledge of God. We are like the Pharisees of Y’shua’s day, diligently studying the scriptures because we think there is life in them. Is this the path, however, that leads to intimacy with God?
As we study the Torah and the scriptures in general, we have to take stock of our approach to these texts. Does gaining knowledge of scripture lead to intimacy and relationship with our creator? If we memorize the ten commandments, or the entire Torah for that matter, does that mean we know it? Is our religious experience with God confined to that which we live through the men and women of the Bible? What are the words of scripture and what do they really mean to us? Are they just words dictated by God to the writers that we must study and learn? Are reason and logic the primary tools we use to make the scriptures valuable to us? Do they accurately reflect the experience of the men and women who really knew God? Not really.
Ultimately, our experiences with God are beyond reason. They cannot be analyzed, quantified, they are not repeatable experiments. Religious experiences are by definition beyond our normal three dimensional existence, beyond the words or pictures we put on paper. Think of it this way. My family does quite a bit of travelling. We see things and do things while we are travelling. My ability to describe a sunset or a cool mountain stream or the sensation of going fast on a jet ski is going to be very limited. You may have some ability to associate but my words and even my pictures cannot describe or capture the experience to the extent that you will really know what it was like. I cannot transfer the experience to you. To really know, you must experience it yourself. One other analogy. I used to ride a motorcycle. I could give you a book to tell you how to ride one, how to work the controls, how to shift your weigh, what to look out for on the road, what it feels like. You could memorize the book but you will not know how to ride a motorcycle until you do it. You may know about it, have knowledge of it, but you will not have the experience by reading or looking at pictures.
The scriptures are the same thing. They are, in a sense, a feeble attempt to take a transcendental experience and put it on a one dimensional plane, put it into words. What we get is all second hand experience and it is, therefore, of secondary value. All doctrine and scripture moves along the ground in this one dimensional plane and if this is all we concentrate on, we will never leave the ground. It is valuable, it is like the runway at the airport. It gives a smooth surface to allow the plane to roll easily for takeoff and it points the way into the sky. If the airplane just goes back and forth on the runway it never performs the function it was built for-flying. If we remain on a one dimensional plane we will never rise into the air either and we will never know our Creator the men and women of scripture did.
The big day has arrived, the people are going to receive the covenant, the Torah. They are gathered around the mountain. The mountain is smoking, the people are prepared, Moshe goes up and the revelation begins. At it’s conclusion there is a verse that says “The entire people saw the thunder and the flames and the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain. The people saw and trembled and stood from afar.” (Ex 20:15(18), Stone’s Tenach) After this the people tell Moshe to speak to God for them for if they continued to hear from God they thought they would die. All this is very curious. Perhaps we think that had we been there we would have had a different reaction. Would we have experienced fear, ecstasy, confusion, guilt, fulfillment, nothing at all? The answers to the question go to the heart of the way we understand revelation and communication with God.
Let’s look at that verse a little more closely. “All (v’kal) the people (hayam) saw (ro’im) the voices (et haqolot) and the torches (v’et halapidim) and (v’et) a voice of the shofar (kol hashofar) and (v’et) the mountain smoking (hahar ashayn). He was seeing (vayar) the people (hayam) and they shook (vayane’u) and they stood (vaya’amdu) far off (mayrachok). The torch seen is exactly that, a burning stick. It was the same word used to describe both the torch that went between the animal pieces Avraham cut up for covenant and the torches Gideon’s soldiers used. This may also bring to mind the ‘tongues of fire’ of shava’ot. The voices are just that, speaking. And it is plural. Seeing is seeing or perceiving something and ‘far off’ means to be barely visible on the horizon, if at all. So we have some interesting things going on in this verse. How does one ‘see’ voices? If the people had to be kept from climbing the mountain, how could they be on the distant horizon? What were the ‘torches’? What were they afraid of?
We have several assumptions about what happened, usually as a result of movies. We assume the voice (singular) thundered from the mountain and scared the pants off the people who were not used to hearing the voice of God. But I think we need to get out of the idea that this is spatial. For example, does revelation come from inside or outside? Could it be argued that because the people were at the base of the mountain yet were ‘afar off’ the distance was not a spatial one but one of perception? They were too far away ‘spiritually’ to see clearly and ‘he’ saw they were distant. It could be argued that Torah is both internal and external, it comes from without and within and emphasizing either leads to problems. Emphasize the external and you end up with legalistic fundamentalists who deal in guilt. To emphasize the internal can lead to relativism and anarchy. The goal is balance, to place the source of reality and revelation everywhere.
After all, the notions of inside and outside, just like the notions of singularity and individuality, may be one of our cultural inventions that was not part of the life and understanding of the ancient Hebrew. It is a trick we are taught early on that keeps the focus of our consciousness inside our bodies. Perhaps it is more to it than this, perhaps our consciousness is outside as well as inside and that which we experience as God is inside and outside as well-simultaneously. We are so used to thinking dualistically that we separate ourselves from God yet the ‘first and continuing cause’ permeates all of existence. The Bible tells us the stars and planets sing the praises of God, the earth groans for redemption. These are more than mere poetic license, the entire universe is alive with the voices of God for God is what it is made of. It is what we are made of. The voices are everywhere. If we would just learn to hear them, God’s universal symphony of revelation would be apparent to us.
All this was apparent to Moshe. He could not only ‘hear’ but the plagues and the water from the rock and the manna and the quail show that he could manipulate them as well. He could see and exercise the power of the universe. The people did not have the same ability. They were ‘far off’, they experienced something outside their worldview that did not agree with their upbringing in Egypt as slaves and it scared them. The Zohar says that everyone saw according to their abilities and as the story unfolds, it is obvious that very few had the ability to hear or see clearly. The question is, if someone is not ready to hear, can God say anything to him? Would an Egyptian have heard anything at Sinai? Can we see anything without having a prior awareness of it or at least consider the possibility it may be true? Could there be a revelation from God going on right now that no one is ready to receive or we are unable to hear because we have not attained the prior awareness Moshe did as a shepherd? Do we make too much noise, have we forgotten to how to be still, not so we can ‘hear’ God but so we can ‘know’ God. Revelation is not confined to a place or time, it doesn’t strike like lightning. It is everywhere all the time. We need only to learn how to ‘see’ it.