“The Phantom Menace” Parashat Yitro 5781

The Giving of the Torah (Matan Torah) at Mount Sinai was the greatest revelation of G-dliness in the history of the universe. G-d literally descended from the heavens in order to give the Torah to the Jewish People. Direct exposure to G-dliness is fraught with great risk and so safety precautions were part and parcel of the event. In preparation for the revelation, G-d commands Moshe [Shemot 19:12-13]: “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death: no hand shall touch him, but he shall be either stoned or shot; beast or man, he shall not live.’”

What would happen if one of the spectators, overcome by the moment, were to break through the barricades and begin climbing Mount Sinai? Obviously he would die but would the instrument of his death be natural or supernatural? Would he be killed by the police or by some sort of phantom menace?

The classic medieval commentators debate this question and they can be divided into two schools of thought. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, who lived in Spain in the twelfth century, explains the verse as follows: a person who tries to climb the mountain must be killed from afar – “no hand shall touch him” –  by a representative of the court. The perpetrator must be pelted with stones and if he is too far away to stone then he must be shot with a bow and arrow[1]. Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, known as the Rashbam, a contemporary of the Ibn Ezra who lived in France, adds that the reason that the offender must be killed from a distance is because a policeman chasing after him would only add to the number of humans on the mountain.

A competing school of thought is led by our Sages in the Midrash[2], who assert that the trespasser “will be stoned with hailstone, or be pierced with arrows of fire”, that is to say, by a phantom menace. Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoah, known as the Chizkuni, a French contemporary of the Rashbam, brings both explanations, choosing not to arbitrate between the two schools of thought.

Let us take a closer look at the scripture and see if it can help us out. When the Torah decrees that the trespasser “shall be stoned”, it uses the words “sakol yis’sakel”, typically translated as “he shall surely be stoned”. A similar double-usage of the verb “to stone (sakol)” is found in only one other location in the Torah, in the case of an ox that has fatally gored a human being [Shemot 21:28]: “The ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten”. It is clear that a human court is responsible to dispense justice to the ox. Ergo, it can be posited that when the Torah uses the phrase “sakol yis’sakel” in the context of the revelation at Sinai, it is also referring to human dispensation of justice. Score one for Team Ibn Ezra.

Not so fast. Three days later, on the day of the revelation, G-d reminds Moshe [Shemot 19:21-24] “Go down, warn the people not to break through to G-d to gaze, lest many of them perish. The priests also, who come near G-d, must stay pure, lest G-d break out against them… let not the priests or the people break through to come up to G-d, lest He break out against them”. This repeated concept of G-d “breaking out” against someone can certainly be used by Team Midrash as proof of concept. So it seems that the game ends in a tie.

I suggest that a way of breaking the deadlock lies in discerning that while G-d twice told Moshe to restrain the people, He was not repeating Himself. The first time G-d warns Moshe, He tells him [Shemot 19:12] “You shall set bounds for the people” – “v’higbalta et ha’am”. The second time around, G-d tells him [Shemot 19:23] “Set bounds around the mountain” – “hag’bel et ha’har”. What is the difference between setting boundaries around the people and setting boundaries around the mountain? For that matter, how was Moshe meant to set boundaries around the people? The Jewish People were encamped on one side of the mountain with some people closer to the mountain and others further away. As those further away were in no danger of trespassing, it seems safe to say that G-d was not commanding Moshe to place barricades around the camp.

Whenever we strive to understand a difficult passage in the Torah, we must always remember that the Torah is not merely relaying the facts of some isolated incident that occurred thousands of years ago. It is teaching us something that is eternally relevant. To this end, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, the leader of North American Jewry in the previous century, offers an intriguing insight. Writing in “Festival of Freedom”, Rav Soloveichik notes that there is a difference between a boundary that restrains a rational human and a boundary that restrains an animal. It is insufficient to tell the animal, “Do not go there!” A “Do Not Trespass” sign is equally useless. An animal can be restrained only by a physical barrier[3], by a strong fence or a wall. A human, on the other hand, does not need a physical partition. It is enough to warn him not to enter and he will stay out. Rav Soloveichik writes, “His boundary is an abstraction, an intangible separation”. When G-d tells Moshe to “set bounds for the people”, He is not commanding Moshe to erect barricades around the people. On the contrary: He wanted the people to restrain themselves because they were commanded to do so and not because they were physically prevented from doing so. This concept, teaches Rav Soloveichik, is a major motif in the Torah. While an earthly court is empowered to enforce the Divine Law, this power is rarely used. The Mishnah in Tractate Makkot [1:10] teaches that a court that exercised the death penalty once in seven years was considered bloodthirsty. We keep the commandments of the Torah simply because they are the Word of G-d. Rav Soloveichik concludes, “The imaginary line that the Jew lives by is stronger than any fence”.

Rabbi Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa, known as “Rabbeinu Bahya”, who lived in Spain at the turn of the fourteenth century, comments on G-d’s second warning to Moshe. Asserting that G-d would not give the same warning twice[4], Rabbeinu Bahya explains that G-d’s second warning “not to break through to G-d” had nothing to do with illegally climbing the mountain. G-d’s second warning pertained not to the human body but to the human mind: He was commanding the Jewish People to experience the Divine Revelation without trying to understand it. When G-d forbids them “to come up to G-d”, He is forbidding them “to comprehend by means other than those intended for the acquisition of such comprehension matters which their intellect fails to grasp”. Attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible would simply “blow their minds”. Indeed, our Sages in the Midrash teach that after each word that G-d spoke to the Jewish People at Mount Sinai, their souls “flew away” and Moshe had to pray to G-d to revive them. Rabbeinu Bahya’s words serve as a stern warning to those who condition their fealty to G-d on their own logic. Belief in G-d requires a Kierkegaardian leap of faith. To reach beyond our own limitations, we must first recognize that we are limited.

By integrating the explanations of Rav Soloveichik and Rabbeinu Bahya, we can understand wheather it was human or superhuman justice that was dispensed on Mount Sinai. G-d’s first warning, to erect bounds around the people, would be implemented though an earthly court  Nevertheless, the ultimate goal of the Jewish People was to levy the responsibility for their observance of the Torah not upon others, but upon themselves. G-d’s second warning, to erect bounds around the mountain, would be enforced by G-d. If a human attempts to exceed his own mortal bounds, then a superhuman punishment will be exacted.

With this integrated safety procedure in place, the Jewish People were, are, and will forever remain ready to receive the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom and stay healthy.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5781

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

[1] This is the first recorded instance in the Torah of the operational use of precision guided tactical weapons.

[2] As quoted by the Aramaic translation of Rav Yonatan ben Uziel

[3] As a pet-owner, this point is made clearly nearly on a daily basis.

[4] Other commentators dispute this point. They assert that a warning given immediately before an event is much more powerful than the same warning given only a few days earlier. At flight tests, we always review safety procedure immediately before the test, even though we have spent the last month preparing it. You can’t be too safe when rocket motors and warheads are involved.

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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