TORAH TUESDAYS: PARSHAT YITRO

BY HENNIE BLACK

tHIS WEEK’S PARSHA BRINGS US THE STORY OF THE GIVING OF THE TORAH- WHAT CAN BE ARGUED IS THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENT IN JEWISH HISTORY.

YET THIS MOMENTOUS EVENT TOOK PLACE IN THE MOST UNLIKELY OF PLACES- IN A BARREN DESERT ATOP A MOUNTAIN THAT WAS SMALL AND UNREMARKABLE.

WHAT IS THE LESSON THAT CAN BE LEARNED FROM THIS JUXTAPOSITION?

In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Jewish people received the Torah. Hashem told Moshe several times that the Jewish people are not allowed to touch the mountain. While it sounds like they were not allowed to touch the mountain because it was holy, the truth is that the mountain was holy only during that moment in time. Once the revelation at Sinai was complete, the mountain reverted to being an ordinary mountain.

It is interesting that the Torah was given to us in the middle of the desert—in a non-descript, barren location–and not in the land of Israel. As a result, we do not even know where the location of Jewish history’s most auspicious occasion took place! No one really knows which mountain is the Mt. Sinai of Jewish history. 

There is a beautiful midrash suggested by this very fact: Hashem chose an obscure and small mountain to be the place where the most important event in Jewish history took place.

The midrash teaches us that all the mountains fought for the opportunity to be the mountain upon which Hashem would gift us the Torah. All except Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai did not feel worthy for this responsibility. It is precisely because of the mountain’s reluctance that Hashem chose Mt. Sinai. Hashem saw Mount Sinai’s inherent greatness in its humility and wanted to emphasize the importance of this character trait. We see this theme repeated in the election of Moshe, renowned as the most humble of our leaders—to be the one chosen to speak to Hashem face-to-face and to gift the Jewish people the Torah.

Why is the quality of humility so paramount in Jewish thought? It is because humility is a prerequisite for wisdom and learning. The ability to be open, accepting and willing to learn from others is a crucial ingredient to accepting the Torah.

In addition to humility, the quality of unity was also a vital component to receiving the Torah. We are taught that just prior to receiving the Torah, the Jewish people were more united than they had ever been. This is suggested by the many instances of the plural form used in the following passage, which have been italicized. Yet, the last verse strangely reverts to the singular form.

“In the third month after the Children of Israel left Egypt, on the first of the month, they came to the desert of Sinai. They had departed from Rephidim and they arrived at Sinai and they camped in the wilderness. Israel camped (singular) opposite the mountain.”

Rashi picks up in the change of grammar from plural to singular and explains that the Jewish people at this point were “as one person, with one heart.”

We are told that this moment in history was the most united that the Jewish people had ever been as a people. We were “as one person, with one heart.” The entire purpose of the Torah, as our instruction book for life, is to reach this level of unity.

That is why the song of Dayenu that we sing at our Passover seder includes the stanza “If you had you brought us to Mount Sinai and not given us the Torah, it would have been enough.” How can we say that just coming to Sinai without receiving the Torah would have been enough?  Wasn’t the whole purpose of coming to Sinai to receive the Torah?

It would have been enough because the Jewish people achieved a state of complete unity. That is what the Torah was meant to accomplish for us.

When we study Torah, no matter what level we are at, we are all recreating the Sinai experience, as we open ourselves–in the spirit of unity–to learning new insights and ideas from others.

Each and every day should be a day of receiving the Torah and achieving a state of unity. Every morning, we bless Hashem – “Blessed are You Who gives us the Torah.” The blessing is said in the present tense–not in the past tense. We remind ourselves that the giving of the Torah was not a one-time experience that happened in the desert thousands of years ago, but one that repeats itself each and every day throughout our lives.

For those wishing to Hennie's Torah Tuesday classes online, please contact Hennie Black at hennie@ncsy.ca

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