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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Yitro - Sinai and Creation

For the first time in the book of Exodus, in Parashat Yitro the Egyptians do not play a major role. Egypt and slavery is finally behind the Israelites. Now, they are faced with an even more difficult task of building a society. For their entire lives, the Israelites were slaves, every aspect of their lives dictated to them. Now, they are asked to be sovereign, to build a community and a nation as free women and men. In order to do this, the first task is to determine upon what laws this society will be built. 

In order to do so, God guides the Israelites through the lands of the Midianites to the wilderness of Sinai where they camp at the foot of a mountain. God calls to Moses saying, “‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples.” (Exodus 19:4-5) God also provides Moses a detailed list of instructions of how the people are to prepare for this prodigious moment that would happen in three days' time. 

When the third day arrived, the Israelites gathered and left the camp together and gathered as one at the foot of the mountain. Together, they witnessed God’s presence on top of Mount Sinai, and in an incredible supernatural experience the Torah describes the experience thusly:  On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning, and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for GOD had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder. As Moses spoke, God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19:16,18-19)

Thunder, the mountain shaking, a loud blast of the horn growing louder and louder; smoke, lightning and fire. The Israelites experience of God as the Creator prepared to give the ten commandments is described in the Torah as an overwhelming multi-sensory experience. A cacophony of sound, a frightening display of color - I can only try to imagine what this would have felt like for the Israelites gathered at the base of the mountain. Everything was noise and color and vibration, there was nowhere else to look and no way to escape the power of what they saw in that moment. 

There is a wonderful midrash (rabbinical teaching) that comments on this awe inspiring, destiny defining moment for the Jewish People. It tells the story of what was happening in every place in the world at that very moment that was not the base of Mount Sinai. 

Rabbi Abahu said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: When the Holy One Blessed Be He gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no bull lowed, the angels did not fly, the heavenly serafim did not say their litany of "holy, holy," the sea did not roll, none of the creations spoke; rather, the world was silent, and the voice went out: "I am the Lord Your God," and so Moses said (Deut. 5:19): "The LORD spoke those words—those and no more—to your whole congregation," a great voice, with nothing additional…The whole world was silent, and the upper and lower worlds were quiet, and the world was tohu vavohu - unformed and void - as if there were not a creation in the world…

The midrash tells that in every other part of the world at the moment the Israelites gathered at Sinai there was utter and complete silence. It was as if the only thing happening in the world at that moment was the interaction between the Israelites and God. 

The rabbis used an interesting term to describe the state of the world in this moment: tohu vavohu. This phrase is typically translated into English as ‘unformed and void’ and it appears only one time in the Torah and it is used to describe the Earth right at the beginning of creation in the moments before God began to shape the world through creation. What the rabbis are subtly teaching us by including this phrase in this Midrash is that the gathering at Mount Sinai is, among many things, the beginning of an entirely new world. All that was before is past and all that will come after matan haTorah - the giving of the Torah - is part of a new existence. There are now incredible expectations for the Israelites to build a new, better, more just society than the one in which they were held in bondage for so many years. 

In the coming chapters and books of the Torah, we will read the many commandments and laws, all that God expects from the Israelites in their attempts to arrive at the land promised to their ancestors and build a new nation and society. But let us stay at this pivotal moment, the revelation at Mount Sinai for just a minute more. 

What does it mean that Mount Sinai marked a type of second creation? What can we learn from this rabbinical teaching? It is remarkable that a society of individuals that just days before were slaves, stripped of so much of their humanity, now stand before the Creator and receive a clear moral code of what is expected from them. This is truly a new world, full of endless possibilities. But what is expected from Israel? To build a society based in justice and care for the weakest among us because, as the Torah will remind us 36 times, we were once strangers in the land of Egypt and we know the pain of what it means to be mistreated by others. For me, this idea is a powerful reminder of the role that each and every one of us have as partners in the ongoing Creation we experience every day, that all of us have a responsibility to strive to make the world just a bit better than the one we know. 

We have been reminded recently that there are many, many people in this world who do not choose this path. But we cannot allow their actions and choices to shape how we act and operate in this world. Sinai reminds us that we can and must continue to strive towards a better, more moral society. Even in times of conflict and pain and fear, we cannot allow others to shape this path for us. Especially now, we as individuals, as a People, and as a nation, must trust that if we act as true partners in Creation, if we do the little things to make our surroundings moderately better, then others will heed that same call. 

In the Talmud, we are taught that all Jews, even those not yet born and converts, were at Sinai. We were all present at this second moment of creation. Let that be a source of strength for us as we engage in the difficult work of building a better, brighter, safer, more prosperous world for all. 

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