These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Revelation @ Mt. Sinai

Posted on January 23, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

I hope you are well. This past week has been quite a busy one and at times, a difficult one for me. My cousin’s father, Eli Bellaiche z”l, passed away last week after a trying battle with cancer. He was an incredibly sweet and loving husband, father and grandfather and although we didn’t know each other very well and had a language barrier between us, I will certainly miss his mischievous and kind smile. May his memory be for a blessing.

This past week also marked the anniversary of my father, Peter Frankel’s, Bar Mitzvah. I remember my grandparents z”l always used to reminisce how that Shabbat was so horribly cold in Montreal.

In this vein, I’d like to dedicate this week’s parsha email in honour of my dad, Peter Frankel, and in loving memory of Eli Bellaiche. Both of them have modeled what it means to be a link in the chain of the Jewish People and their love and commitment to family, Torah and mitzvot.

Now, let’s turn to the parsha! The defining element of Parshat Yitro is the Revelation at Sinai and the infamous “Ten Commandments”. (Note: Charleton Heston does not appear anywhere in the Bible.) Naturally, our attention is fixed on this pivotal moment in Jewish history. And as readers of the text, we wonder: Did Revelation at Sinai happen? And if so, what exactly happened at that mountain?

To my mind, the fundamental question raised in last week’s parsha is this: what is so significant about this event (Revelation at Sinai) in our collective memory?

I cannot answer this question. It is a mystery, maybe a matter of faith. HOWEVER, in reading Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (2001) on the parsha last week, I came across a number of revelatory insights (excuse the pun!) on the Revelation at Sinai and I’d like to share them with you. Many of them are not necessarily related to one another, but I believe that they can offer the “parsha reader” gateways to this mysterious meaning of receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai.

  1. Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rymanov suggested that the Jewish People heard the first letter of the Ten Commandments, alef, which is a silent letter and were to intuit the rest of the Torah. Because they encountered God so directly, it was clear to them what was right and wrong and how to emulate God in their behaviour.
  2. The Etz Hayim commentary noted that the Ten Commandments begin with “I am the LORD, your God” and ends with “your neighbour” (Exodus 20:1,13). In this way, the Ten Commandments are not simply a list of the “top 10” mitzvot that we are expected to observe. Rather, they are all-encompassing: the Ten Commandments represents a code of conduct that relates to human-divine relationships as well as human-human relationships.
  3. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel commented that we cannot make an image of God (Exodus 20:3) because we, ourselves, are made in God’s image.
  4. Rabbi Yisrael of Modzhitz taught that there are 2 modes of keeping Shabbat: “being” and “doing”. “Being” is a passive type of Shabbat observance, mainly abstaining from work and the like. “Doing” is an active form of Shabbat observance, which involves learning Torah, prayer and eating. The Torah implores us to keep Shabbat according to both of these modes.
  5. Martin Buber wrote that “God is found in relationships”.  Accordingly the Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah) states that the Holy Presence (Shechinah) is diminished when these relationships fall apart, and particularly when adultery takes place.
  6. The Etz Hayim commentary raised the question: why does the Torah juxtapose the prohibition of stealing with that of adultery? Is the Torah equating the two in their severity? No! Rather, the Torah suggests that to maintain social order, both familial and economic relationships must be treasured and safeguarded.
  7. Rabbi Yehiel of Zolochev taught that if a person keeps the first nine commandments, then s/he will never struggle with the tenth commandment.

I hope that these teachings will prompt further thinking and conversation and bring meaning to the content and context of the Revelation at Mount Sinai.

Shavua tov,