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How an intimidating spectacle becomes a comfort

It's remarkable how one singular event at Mount Sinai gave rise to so many different opinions (Yitro)
Mount Sinai. (Mohammed Moussa, Wikipedia)
Mount Sinai. (Mohammed Moussa, Wikipedia)

After their departure from Egypt, the Children of Israel finally arrive at Mount Sinai in this week’s parsha. Hardly the inspiring journey one would hope for — the route from slavery to spirituality seems, with rare exception, like a continuous chain of conflict and complaint. “Each place it says ‘and they journeyed… and they encamped (vayahanu),’” a midrash notes, “they journeyed in quarrel and encamped in quarrel” (Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishamael, Yitro, BaHodesh, 1).

Then they come to Sinai – “There they were of one heart — wherefore it is written ‘and [Israel] encamped (vayihen).’”

Noting the unexpected switch from the plural vayahanu, “they encamped,” to the singular vayihen — which suggests that they were now acting as a nation, rather than a random pack of traveling companions — this midrash hints, more significantly, at the palpable change in atmosphere depicted in the text the moment they arrived at Sinai. Suddenly, the bickering and grumbling cease and all the negative energy is transformed into a positive united force. Not only do they camp as one, but together, they tremble before the surrounding sights and sounds, and promise with one voice to follow God (Exodus 19:8, 16; 20:14) — note the repeated use of the word kol, “all” or, as here, “together.” Even the mountain adds to the feeling of solidarity – trembling as the people tremble (Exodus 19:16, 18) – as if it understands, as they momentarily do, that in this place they must be one. An additional midrash comments: “’vayihen’ — a single encamping was put in their hearts that they would love one another, and receive the Torah” (Mechilta D’Rashbi, 19; see also Tanhuma Yashan, Yitro). This tangible harmony was a necessary prerequisite for the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Some suggest endearingly that “vayichen” plays on the phrase “limtzo chen” – to find favor. One such explanation proposes: “They found favor in the eyes of one another.” With this positive change, suggests another interpretation, “they found favor in the eyes of God” (Torah Shelemah, Exodus 19, note 25).

Something about Sinai gave the people one heart – making them as one person (Rashi, Exodus 19:2). It would seem to follow that all present at Sinai had the same experience; that if they all acted and reacted together, they must have all thought and felt the same thing. Interestingly, the very same corpus of midrash that provided us with these pictures of perfect accord, is the inspiration of no less than four different accounts of the experience of the giving of the Torah, all of which stem from the same verse, which appropriately describes the Children of Israel, as they assemble before God.

“And Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places “be-tahtit” the mountain” (Exodus, 19:17.)

According to the plain meaning of this verse, Moses led the people to the foot of the Mount Sinai. To midrashic delight, however, the Hebrew phrase be-tahtit can also denote “under” — which is all that is needed for the midrashic imagination to envision the people standing with the mountain hovering over their head.

But what to make of such an image?

In what is surely the most famous take on this image, the midrash expounds:

“And they stood be-tachtit hahar”– this teaches that the Holy One Blessed Be He forced the mountain over them like a barrel, and said: If you accept the Torah upon yourselves – good, but if not here you will be buried!” (Mechilta D’Rashbi, 19:17).

In this imagining of the event, the mountain is a threat; the revelation at Sinai, an act of coercion, is something forced upon the people against their will. Some explain that the spectacle before them was the very source of the coercion – that it is impossible to see God revealed so powerfully and say, “No, thanks” to His offer. Either way, the giving of the Torah is controlling and intimidating. Torah is an obligation, like it or not.

In a discussion of this midrash in the Talmud an alternate type of the gift of the Torah is offered: Although one might think that we are not obligated by a deal that was forced upon us, the Talmud reasons that the people accepted the Torah upon themselves later of their own accord in the days of Mordechai and Esther. During the Purim miracle — in stark contrast to the revelation on Sinai — God’s presence was hidden and had to be sought out and discerned by the people. This “giving of the Torah” might not have taken place at Mount Sinai; nevertheless, it was, according to the Talmud, the moment that the nation accepted the Torah as their own. The experience of receiving the Torah here challenges us to connect to God and his Torah by way of intellect and intuition.

Two other takes on the floating mountain image are found in another midrash:

“’They stood’ (Exodus 19:17) – they crowded together. This teaches that the mountain was ripped away from its place, and they came close and stood under the mountain” (Mechilta D’Rabbi Yishmael 19:17).

It is significant to note that that in this midrash, the mountain is not forced over their head as depicted in the first midrash, rather, it is ripped out of the ground, and the people gather under the mountain of their own accord. It is unclear why they do so.

One explanation can be can be found by reading the midrash in the context of the statement which comes before it: “’The Lord came from Sinai’ (Deuteronomy 33:2) — to receive Israel, as a groom goes out to receive his bride.” According to this midrash, the scene before us is the wedding of God and the people of Israel; the hovering mountain is a symbol of the chuppah above their heads. In this account, receiving the Torah is a moment of divine love and intimacy (see Exodus Rabbah 41:3), but it is also about commitment – about embracing all aspects of a relationship.

Another explanation is offered by a variant manuscript of this same midrash which contains a different suggestion of what occurs here:

“And they stood” (Exodus 19:17) – they crowded together. This teaches that Israel was fearful of the blasts, of the trembling, of the thunder and of the lightening which were coming. ‘Be-tahtit’ of the mountain. This teaches the mountain was ripped away from its place, and they came close and stood under the mountain.

In this version of the story the people are fearful – God’s revelation is still an intimidating spectacle. The mountain itself, the symbol of receiving the Torah, is a source of protection and comfort. Here Mount Sinai is not a threat, nor a symbol of a new relationship, but simply a shelter. This revelation creates a context within which to live, a place to find meaning.

These spectacularly different interpretations distill for us different aspects of the significance of the giving of the Torah, but they provide just as much if not more insight as to how any individual might relate to Torah at any point in history since then.

For me, one individual, Torah is comforting — a place I feel at home, part of a family; other times, Torah feels like an obligation — something I must do to be part of that family. Sometimes I wrestle with Torah, trying to find in it meaning while feeling my way through dark, unclear passages; most times, its meaning shines forth clearly from the layers of its depth and intricacy. Torah can also be difficult, occasionally suffocating, though usually it is its beauty that leaves me breathless. And Torah is a commitment, because the astonishing fact that I was born into something unbroken since the day we stood together under that mountain is not lost on me.

These contrasting experiences reside within a single person with a single heart.

Humans are so very complex — one heart feels many different things — how much more so a whole nation of humans. A nation can be whole and united even if its members are not identical. The Jewish people can be one, even if they view the thing that unites them in very different ways. Indeed, they are like a single person with a single heart.

Torah does not unite us by making us all the same; it is meant to unite us despite our differences.

About the Author
Ilana Goldstein Saks has an MA in Tanach from Bar-Ian University, and spent many years studying in batei midrash for women. She has taught Jewish Studies for over 25 years in midrashot and schools in Israel, as well as online, and has worked in curriculum and course development. She currently bakes and teaches at Pat Bamelach. She lives in Efrat with her husband and four children.
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