Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1 – 20:23)
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “The Lord descended on Mount Sinai… and Moses went up…And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down’…” (Exodus 19:21)
The verses immediately preceding the Decalogue Revelation at Sinai are curious, to say the least. God and Moses enter into a dialogue which appears to be a discussion between two deaf individuals, as it were:
“The Lord summoned Moses to the mountain peak, and Moses went up. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down’ and bear testimony to the people that they must not break the boundary towards God to see Him…” [that is, the people may not go up close to God. Even] the priest Kohanim, who [usually] come near to the Lord, must separate themselves lest the Lord wreak destruction amongst them. And Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people cannot go up to Mt. Sinai; you [God] bore testimony against them, making the mountain off limits… And the Lord said [to Moses], ‘Go down’. You can then [later] come [back] up along with Aaron [See 24:12, after the Decalogue is given to the nation]… And Moses went down to the nation” (Exodus 19:20-25).
How can we understand such repetitious dialogue in which God tells Moses to come up in order to hear that he must go down? Moses argues that the people cannot come up, God once again tells Moses to go down, and Moses finally goes down? And why is this the most fitting introduction to the Decalogue Revelation?
I would suggest that this dialogue is indeed setting the stage for the essential purpose of Torah. It is expressing the unique message of Torah, that which distinguishes Judaism from most other religious ideologies and even that which distinguishes Jewish philosophy from the Neo-Platonism of much of Western thought.
My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik ztz”l, in his magnum opus Halakhic Man, distinguishes between three prototypical intellectual leaders: Scientific Man (Ish hada’at), for whom the only universe is the observable material world in which he finds himself; Religious Man (Ish ha’dat), who escapes from this material world of transiency and illusion, and whose real universe in the spiritual, supernal domain of the Divine; and Halakhic Man (Ish ha’halakhah), who sees the material world as his universe of dialogue and concern, but who is dissatisfied with the world as it is. He brings to this world an eternal and transcendent Torah Guide which must shape and perfect it in accord with the supernal Divine will.
The ish ha’halakha provides the third and most acceptable perspective, which expresses the mission of Israel and the purpose of Torah: to perfect the world in the Kingship of the Divine (Aleynu Prayer).
Let us now return to the Biblical dialogue between God and Moses. God is about to provide Israel (and the world) with His Revelation. Moses, initially the prototypical “Religious Man”, understands that in order to receive the Divine Revelation, one must come close to the Divine, one must divest oneself as much as possible from one’s physical and material external trappings, one must at least climb to the top of the mountain.
“No”, says God, “this Revelation is meant for the material world, this Revelation is not limited to the intellectual and mystical elite; in this Revelation, now to all of Israel and eventually to the entire world (“Al Ken Nekaveh,” the second paragraph of the Aleynu Prayer), the people are not expected to go up to God; in this Revelation, God and His Torah will come down to the people, will come down – and hopefully suffuse, re-shape and perfect – the entire material world”.
Moses doesn’t quite understand. He is perplexed by the fact that the people have been forbidden from climbing to the top of the mountain to receive the Revelation. But God patiently explains that just as He (as it were) “descended upon Mt. Sinai,” (19:20), so must he (Moses) descend to the bottom of the mountain. And so the dialogue ends, “And Moses descended to the nation and spoke unto them” (19:25).
And so the Talmud records that when Moses later ascends heavenwards to receive the entire Revelation of the 613 Commandments, (Ex 24:12), the angels are loathe to release their precious treasure to a mortal human being. God instructs Moses to explain to them that they were never enslaved in Egypt. that they have no desire for adultery, that they have no parents whom they must honor (B.T. Shabbat 88b). And so our Sages teach that the Holy One Blessed be He has in this world only the “four cubits of Halakhah”: the laws of kashrut bring God into the kitchen and dining room, the laws of family purity bring God into the bedroom; the laws of business bring God into the work-place; the laws of interpersonal relationships bring God into all political forums.
Our Torah is meant to perfect and sanctify every aspect of our material world.