Commentary for Yitro

6 Feb

This week’s parshah contains the revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Ten Commandments. While chapter twenty deals with the commandments themselves, chapter nineteen does the important job of setting the scene in which this revelation takes place. Exodus 19:4 contains not only the famous phrase “I have borne you on the wings of eagles,” but also the much less well know and more theologically puzzling end of the verse “and I have brought you to Me.” If God is omnipresent (and, indeed, during the Passover Seder, God is often referred to as “The Omnipresent”), why did God need to “bring” the Israelites to a specific place where God was?

The obvious answer to this question seems to be that the verse is meant in a spiritual sense, not a physical one, but this doesn’t seem to hold up within the Torah. Exodus 2:23 tells us that “their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God,” which tells us that they believed in God all along. Why, then, could the revelation not take place in Egypt, or by the Red Sea, or in Rephidim or Marah or any of the other places the Israelites stopped along the way? We have the same Israelites and the same omnipresent God who they believe in, so why wait until they reach this one place for this grand revelation?

In every stop along the way, we are actually shown God’s omnipresence through a display of Divine power in some way or another. In Egypt and at the Red Sea, God’s power as the Redeemer of Israel, the Eternal Judge, and the Master of Nature are on full display. At Rephidim and at the Red Sea, God functions as our protector. At Marah and at Elim, God provides for us by giving us fresh water where there previously was none and by giving us the manna. At Sinai, though, none of these facets of our relationship with God is more prominent than any other.

The preparations that Moses instructs the Israelites to take before the revelation are performed by each individual rather than by the people as a whole, with Moses or Aaron or someone else acting as an intermediary. When God offers the Israelites the covenant, it is not the mass group of “the nation” or “the Israelites” that respond, but rather “the entire people (Ex. 19:8) and it is again “the entire people” who are recorded as having experienced the revelation in Exodus 20:15. Each individual was a part of the covenant because Sinai was a place where each individual could explore his or her own unique relationship with God.

But if all of the Israelites are individually engaged in the covenant through their own unique relationship with God, then why have a revelation at Sinai at all? Why not just let it come to everyone in his or her own time?

A few parshahs later, we run into a similar theologically problematic statement related to God’s omnipresence, when God commands Moses to tell the Israelites to “make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them (Ex. 25:8).” To make a long story short, the lesson from this verse is not that God needs us to build a house for God or else God will be absent from the world, but rather that we need a space where we can come together to focus to help invite God into our lives. Just like us, if left to their own devices, it probably would have taken the ancient Israelites quite a while to find the time to focus on their relationships with God and to make themselves ready to accept the covenant. At Sinai, which served as a precursor to the Tabernacle discussed in Ex. 25:8 and to our modern synagogues, the Israelites were all given a time and a place to focus on those relationships, both as a community and as individuals within that larger community.

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