William Hamilton

When adjacent become remote

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks of three moral voices in Torah. The wisdom voice promotes goodness, integrity, and responsibility.  The prophetic voice calls us to be better, urging repair and renewal. The priestly voice preserves order, instilling habits that bring values to life.  All three of these moral voices blend together in the Ten Commandments which are revealed in this week’s portion of Torah.

Commands against murder, thievery, and falsehood are familiar wisdom principles.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote of the long-term aspiration of Torah: “What was expected at Sinai comes about in the moment of a good deed.”

Sinai also represents the most public prophetic experience of all time.  Encircling the mountain that day were between two and three million women, men, and children of the House of Israel.  Before the two Tablets elaborate on the good, they teach about God.  A first command expresses God’s identity.  A second command clarifies God’s exclusivity.  And a third weighs in on God’s influence.  Heschel reminds us that although a memory of an aesthetic experience may recall enjoyment, it is the memory of a prophetic experience that evokes commitment.

But it is the priestly voice that captures my attention this year.  The staging and preparation for Mt. Sinai is entirely priestly in nature.  Boundaries, separations, and sacred zones are priestly terms.  “Set a boundary for the people around the mountain, and tell them to be careful not to climb the mountain or even to touch its edge” (Ex. 19:12).  Distinctions are vital.  Blurring them becomes dangerous.  Unlike the wisdom and prophetic voices which are so rich in repentance and compassion, boundary breaches are lethal.  This is because the slide from order to chaos is slippery and treacherous.  Thus, the priestly moral voice is unforgiving.  Violations are given no reprieve.

Today we see how treacherous the slide from order to chaos can be.  Public differences are often handled like impurities.  They can rapidly accelerate into heresies.  An unbending priestly moral voice can turn an adjacent fellow-traveler into a remote adversary. 

But when harmonized with wisdom and prophetic voices, the remote can begin to feel more adjacent.  This is because the wisdom voice has always be more adroit at listening and learning.  And a more spacious prophetic voice’s accent can be optimistic in tone. 

Sinai harmonized all three voices.  One God who lives, loves, and listens, brings us to the threshold of the sacred again this week.  May we be affected by it’s soft glow in service of generous good-will, warmer alignment, and applied hope.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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