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“Synthetic Reality – Part 2” Parashat Yitro 5782

Last week, we discussed the level of belief that was and wasn’t attained by the Jewish People on the Reed Sea. We quoted the Rambam, who stated that the Jewish People did not fully believe in Moshe’s prophecy until the revelation at Mount Sinai. Here is a snippet from the Rambam [Yesodei HaTorah 8:1]: “The Jews did not believe in Moshe, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery… What is the source of our belief in [Moshe]? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard it say, ‘Moshe, Moshe, go tell them the following…’ How is it known that the [revelation] at Mount Sinai alone is proof of the truth of Moshe’s prophecy that leaves no shortcoming? Scripture states [Shemot 19:9]: ‘Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, [so that] they will believe in you forever.’” In this essay, we will try to understand what happened at Mount Sinai that managed to push the ball over the goal line and irrefutably convince the Jewish People of G-d’s existence.

We begin our search with the verse quoted by the Rambam [Shemot 19:9]: “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, [so that] they will believe in you forever.” What is it about a thick cloud of fog that enhances belief? One would think that the reduction of visibility associated with fog would serve to weaken the force of the revelation. Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel, who lived in the fifteenth century in Portugal, Spain, and Italy[1], explains in his commentary on the Passover Haggadah, “Zevach Pessach”, why the Egyptians followed the Jewish People into the Reed Sea, even though G-d had had just finished pulverizing Egypt piece by piece with ten plagues. What could possibly go wrong?

The Abarbanel points to a verse that describes the Egyptian army as they encamped by the sea [Shemot 14:20]: “There was the cloud with the darkness, and it cast a spell upon the night, so that the one could not come near the other all through the night.” The Egyptians experienced the “fog of war” in every way, shape, and form. They had no idea where they were. They had no situational awareness. They ran blindly after the Jews, right into the sea. Only when the fog suddenly cleared did they see where they were and by then, it was already too late[2]. Why at Sinai would such a dense fog induce “proof that leaves no shortcoming”? Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, known as the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco in the first half of the eighteenth century, suggests that fog was a necessary ingredient for revelation because had G-d revealed Himself to the Jewish People in full daylight, the intensity of that revelation would have overloaded their sensory circuits[3]. The dense fog served as a filter, attenuating the Divine Holiness to a level that could be absorbed by a human being.

We can gain some traction via the commentary of Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, who lived in Spain and in Israel in the thirteenth century. The Ramban gives us a hyperlink: “[The cloud] is the thick darkness where G-d was, and all the people saw it and recognized it as such, as it is said, [Shemot 42:17] ‘And the appearance of the Glory of G-d was like a consuming flame on the top of the mount in the eyes of the Children of Israel.’” This linked verse appears in an episode following the revelation in which Moshe climbs Mount Sinai to study the Torah for forty days and forty nights. The Ramban’s association between the two verses is difficult to comprehend. What is the connection between “thick fog” and “consuming flame”, two concepts that, prima facie, seem at odds?

We must look closer. The term “consuming flame” is vaguely reminiscent of an earlier revelation in which Moshe first meets G-d at the burning bush [Shemot 3:2] “Behold, there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed.” The word “behold” always means that something extraordinary and unexpected has just transpired. It must mean that the bush should have been consumed by the flame and yet it was not, meaning that the “consuming flame” that Moshe saw on Mount Sinai was the same “consuming flame” that he saw at the burning bush. As further evidence, the burning bush was located on the [Shemot 3:1] “Mountain of G-d”, identified by many as Mount Sinai. The question we must now address is what was so special about that flame that facilitated belief in G-d?

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, who lived in Italy at the turn of the sixteenth century in Italy, suggests that Moshe would frequently go to the Mountain of G-d when he wanted to “be by himself, to meditate[4] (l’hitboded), and to pray”. The revelation at the burning bush was close and personal. One Midrash states that G-d spoke to Moshe in the voice of his father and the Talmud in Tractate Berachot [45a] asserts that G-d spoke in Moshe’s own voice. I suggest that this was precisely the kind of revelation that was experienced by each and every Jew at Mount Sinai.

Rabbi Jacob Tzvi Mecklenburg, who lived in Germany in the nineteenth century, writing in “HaKetav veha’Kabala”, illustrates this concept by offering a pseudoscientific description of a flame: “The flame of a burning fire flickers according to the amount of its ‘fire force’ that holds the flame, such that each flame consists of many different types of fire.” Stated in scientific terms, the color of a flame is determined by its temperature. The hottest part of the flame is at the base, which typically burns with a different color than the outer edges of the flame, according to the local concentration of fuel and air. Blue flames are the hottest, followed by white, yellow, orange and red. Rabbi Mecklenburg teaches that, like a multi-colored flame, each person at Sinai experienced G-d according to his own spiritual level. Each person, covered by a blanket of cloud, experienced a completely personal, one-on-one revelation with G-d. Each person’s revelation was Divinely designed according to his background, his goals, and his desires. Each person met the G-d he had always wanted to meet, the G-d he had always wanted to believe in.

This idea can shine new light on a verse in which the Jewish People confront Moshe after the revelation at Sinai and ask him to turn down the volume [Devarim 5:20]: “G-d has just shown us His majestic Presence, and we have heard His voice out of the fire; we have seen this day that man (adam) may live though G-d has spoken to him”. It was not that G-d could “speak with us,” but, rather, he could “speak with an adam,” with an individual, as if this one person, like Adam in the Garden of Eden, were the only person on earth[5].

Our belief is the source of our sanctity. The Jewish concept of “sanctity” – “kedusha” – is synonymous with separation. The holiest place in the world – the Holy of Holies in the Beit HaMikdash (Temple) – is entered only once a year, on the holiest day of the year – Yom Kippur – and even then, only by the holiest person in the world, the High Priest. Holiness thrives when it is enclosed, when it is separated by barriers. It is our inherent otherness that keeps us separate. By mere fact that we are [Bemidbar 23:9] “a People that dwells apart,” we become, willy-nilly [Shemot 19:6] “a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] He, along with the rest of the Jews, was evicted from both Spain and Portugal.

[2] This explanation always brings to mind Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff in a mad dash after the Roadrunner. When he realizes where he is, gravity always takes a second or two to begin functioning.

[3] The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat [88b] relates that at Sinai, each of the first two commandments, spoken by G-d, literally blew their minds, even when attenuated by a fog filter. G-d had to shower them with the dew that will be used in the future to revive the dead in order to bring them back to life.

[4] The translation of “l’hitboded” as “meditate” alludes to the unstructured, spontaneous and individualized form of prayer and meditation practiced by Breslover Hassidim, which they call “hisboydedus”.

[5] This could explain why the Jewish People asked G-d to cease speaking to them. Having a head-to-head conversation with a famous figure can be exhilarating but it can also be daunting.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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