Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

God, Holiness, and the Need for Human Initiative (Parshat Yitro)


God reveals himself in the most clairvoyant fashion in all of human history, when he gives us the Torah; when he gives us the Ten Commandments. [Exodus 19 and 20]

Yet in this week’s portion, Yitro, we are told that the moment God leaves leaves Mount Sinai, the holiness of the location dissipates. [Talmud, Tractate Taanit 21b]

Why is that? When God reveals himself in the clearest fashion in all of human history, there is no longer any holiness there after that moment?

However, when it comes to the Temple in Jerusalem, where God did not reveal Himself in the same fashion, we know that there is holiness on the Temple Mount forever. [Maimonides, Laws of the Temple, 6:16]

Why the difference?

Similarly, we see a difference between the conquering of Israel the first time with Joshua, and the conquering of Israel the second time with Ezra.

When we conquer the Land of Israel through Joshua, with miracles, the Talmud tells us in Tractate Megillah that the holiness is only for the moment.

But the moment the Jewish people are exiled, with the destruction of the First Temple, the holiness of the Land of Israel ceases.

But when the Jewish people re-enter the Land of Israel with Ezra, the Talmud tells us that this holiness lasts forever. [Tractate Megillah 10a]

Why is that? Why is there such a difference?

The fundamental difference between Mount Sinai and the Temple Mount, and the fundamental difference between the first conquest of Israel and the second one, has to do with human initiative.

On Mount Sinai, yes! – it is an amazing historical, unprecedented experience. But only God is involved in the initiative. So when God departs, the holiness departs, as well.

But when it comes to the Temple, there is human initiative. And when there is human initiative, the holiness endures forever.

We have so much to contribute that the holiness that we create lasts forever.

When Joshua conquers the Land of Israel, it is done with divine miracles, and therefore, when the Jews leave – when God exiles us – the holiness ends.

But when Ezra enters the Land of Israel with Jews who were assimilated, with Jews who were not shomer mitzvot, who did not keep Shabbat and other mitzvot – those factors are totally irrelevant. It is irrelevant that they were intermarried. What counts is the willingness for Jews to sacrifice, to conquer and to capture, and more importantly, to live in the Land of Israel.

That holiness in the time of Ezra, in which people are willing to take the initiative, irrespective of their religious pedigree, creates a holiness that endures forever.

What an important message for each and every one of us: the power of human initiative.

Mount Sinai, a holiness that lasts for a moment; and the human initiative at the Temple that allows the holiness to last forever.

The first conquest of Israel, a holiness for a moment, because of its miracles.

And the second conquest of Israel, living in Israel in the time of Ezra, is a holiness of human initiative that lasts forever.

We have so much to contribute, and our initiative and effort enable our relationship with God to endure forever.

Shabbat Shalom.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 32 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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