This week’s Torah portion is Yitro, Exodus 18:1 – 20:23.
I struggle with the Sinai story. I understand what it is trying to do: give a powerful sense of the fearsomeness of the human-God encounter. This story is one of Jewish tradition’s root metaphors, yet understanding it as one characterized by fear feels like it has outlived its usefulness.
In parshat Yitro, God tells Moses to erect barriers between the people and the mountain; anyone who touches the mountain will surely die (Exodus. 19:12). Later, God warns Moses against the people approaching, lest God “break out” among them, as though God is not in control (Exodus 19:24).
Then there is the scene of God’s actual “coming down” on Mount Sinai: the intense shaking of the mountain, the thick cloud covering it, the smoke, the lightning, the sound of a shofar growing louder and louder, the people’s synesthesia as they “see” the thunder. The Torah uses the same verb (charad) to describe the mountain’s quaking and the people’s trembling during their experience. The people are afraid — they don’t want to approach and they say to Moses, “You speak with us and we will listen, but don’t let God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:16).
The Sinai experience is clearly intended to portray the human-Divine encounter as governed by fear at least as much as awe.
I’m not saying we should cut out or forget this seminal story from the Torah. I am simply giving voice to the struggle I had as I closely read the Sinai narrative this year. As I probed that discomfort deeper, I found a longing to honor this story, but not to inhabit it.
The reason is that while I understand that our ancestors understood God as a dangerous, fear-inducing power, that is not how I, or I think most of us, live our theological lives. When I am trying to teach others about the possibility of connecting to God or recognizing the Divine Presence, all the fear-inducing God imagery really gets in the way.
A more helpful and inspiring way for me to understand the human-Divine interface comes from the Tanya, the core text of Chabad Chasidism:
“Every soul from the House of Israel contains the quality of Moses, one of the seven shepherds who draws down Divine vitality and Godliness for all the souls of Israel. Moses includes all those shepherds, so he [in particular] is called the faithful shepherd, as he draws down the quality of awareness of God for all of Israel, so that they may know God, each one, according to their soul’s capacity. [They are] nurtured from the root of the soul of Moses, which is rooted in the highest level of God awareness” (Tanya, 42).
This mystical teaching from the Tanya offers us the insight that we each have an inner Moses, a capacity within the depths of our being to draw down higher awareness and intuition. The Moses capacity calls us to listen on a much deeper level.
If we then reread the Sinai story, we can understand Moses and the people not as two entities, but as two capacities within each of us. Sometimes we are in our “people” capacity — we need barriers and we are afraid to go deeper. And yet we can also tap into our own Moses capacity, that quality that can mediate between the “people” and that which is beyond, that can help us grow in our knowledge of the ultimate.
Josh Jacobs-Velde is the co-rabbi of Oseh Shalom in Laurel.