• March 3, 2024
  • 23 5784, Adar I
  • פרשת ויקהל

The WebYeshiva Blog

One Chosen People is Enough

By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin Imagine an alternate universe where instead of there being one Chosen People, one nation who received the Torah in the Middle East 3300 years ago, there were actually two nations who received the Torah: One, the Jews who stood at Mount Sinai, and two, a group of Olmecs, an ancient civilization from Mesoamerica in the western hemisphere, who also experienced a revelation around the same time. Both peoples received the Torah, but one nation lived in the East, and the other in the West. The Jews were given Israel as their Promised Land, and the Olmecs were given Mexico as their Promised Land. What are the repercussions of this alternate history? Would knowing that there is another Chosen People on the other side of the world affect my ability as a Jew to serve God? Furthermore, over the course of centuries, Judaism spreads and eventually influences the creation of Christianity and Islam. What religions on the western hemisphere would crop up as a result of the Olmecs and their Torah? These questions may sound silly and pointless, until we look at a verse from our parsha. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe prayed to Hashem to not only spare the Jews, but also to grant additional favors. One such favor was that instead of God sending an intermediary angel to guide the Jews through the desert into Eretz Israel, God would lead them directly. Moshe’s petition was (33:16): וּבַמֶּה יִוָּדַע אֵפוֹא כִּי־מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲנִי וְעַמֶּךָ הֲלוֹא בְּלֶכְתְּךָ עִמָּנוּ וְנִפְלִינוּ אֲנִי וְעַמְּךָ מִכָּל־הָעָם אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה For how shall it be known that both I and Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, both I and Your nation, from every nation on the face of the earth?

Different from all other nations

Moshe’s interest wasn’t just to have God closer to the people. He argued that this close contact would be how the rest of the world would recognize that the Jewish people were “distinguished” from every other nation of the world. Why was it important to Moshe that the world should recognize that the Jews were different from everyone else? What’s even more shocking is the Midrashic commentary cited by Rashi. Not only was Moshe asking for God’s direct Divine presence to travel with the Jews, he also was asking God: Promise that You will never allow Your Divine Presence to rest on any other nation! Up until that time, prophets appeared to the other nations and offered Divine messages. Because of Moshe’s petition, all prophecies from the other nations ceased. Why would Moshe ask for such a thing? What’s wrong with there being another nation that is communicated to by God? Shouldn’t we want the whole world to have a relationship with Hashem? Are we so proprietary and selfish as to want to deprive the world of a closeness to their Maker? The Chatam Sofer (R. Moshe Sofer, d. 1839) addressed why Moshe wanted only the Jewish people to have prophecy, and why this request was related to the Golden Calf sin. Before the sin, Moshe would have been fine if God had chosen another nation to also receive the Torah. But now that the Jews sinned, Moshe was worried that if there would be another nation receiving the Torah, they might become God’s favorite nation. Maybe the Olmecs in Mexico would do a better job fulfilling the Torah’s edicts, and would never build a Golden Calf. This possibility caused Moshe great concern; he didn’t mind if other people had the Torah, but he didn’t want to make his people look bad by comparison to any other Torah-commanded nation.

Flawed but inherently holy

I have difficulty with this explanation. Who’s “team” was Moshe playing on: God’s team, or Israel’s team? Certainly, Moshe was an Israelite, but his devotion to Hashem should have trumped his loyalty to his own family. If, indeed, the Jews, this “stiff-necked people,” had character flaws that made them prone to sin, and if, indeed, there could be found another nation who did not possess this propensity towards idolatry and sin, then wouldn’t Moshe have wanted God’s Torah to be entrusted to such a superior people?! Why force God’s hand to deprive the Olmecs the opportunity of fulfilling the Torah completely, even if it meant outshining the Jews? I suggest, therefore, that Moshe’s intention was deeper. Moshe understood the history of his people. He knew that the Jews had descended from exemplary patriarchs and matriarchs who passed down a legacy of morality and kindness. He knew the centuries-long enslavement in Egypt, which further primed this nation of morally superior people with the requisite humility to submit themselves to Divine authority. He reasoned: If, even after centuries of conditioning and superior genetics, the Jews are still prone to sin, imagine what would happen to a nation that did not have the great biblical patriarchs and matriarchs as their ancestors! Imagine the Olmecs being given a Torah; if the Jews failed so miserably despite their inherent greatness, then certainly the Olmecs would only distort and disobey God’s Torah in a worse way! This would invariably result in God’s anger being kindled even further, and would also result in an even greater Chillul Hashem – desecration of God’s name – than the sin of the Golden Calf! The Olmec Golden Calf, reasoned Moshe, would be even bigger and more flagrantly oppositional to Hashem’s will than the Jewish one.

Us or them

This was Moshe’s appeal to Hashem: Keep us as the sole Chosen People. I know my own people’s flaws, despite our coming from excellent pedigree. I can guarantee that when we sin, we won’t descend so low as to be completely beyond redemption. But if your Divine Presence rests upon another nation, they might debase your Torah in a way far worse than us. Over the course of the centuries, other religions that mutate from Judaism will emerge. These religions will accomplish much good, but they will also wreak some level of havoc throughout the world. If you allow the Olmecs to have the Torah, their religion will also be distorted and repackaged by others over time. Their distortions will be far more harmful to the world than anything perpetrated by the outgrowths of Judaism. This may explain why Moshe twice inserted himself by saying, “אֲנִי וְעַמֶּךָ” – “both I and Your people,” when requesting this distinction. At first glance, it seems egotistical for Moshe to put himself before the nation, yet we know that Moshe was exceedingly humble. He was conveying that he had as much confidence in his people as he had in himself. He knew that he, as a member of the Jewish family, was up to the task to be the giver of the Torah, and all he asked was that Hashem have the same confidence in Bnei Israel that He had in Moshe. We look at what is happening throughout the world today, especially in parts of the world that have acquired their Abrahamic religious values – or lack thereof – from the Jewish Bible. We also note the current chaotic democracy that exists in Israel today, and the unresolved problems from before October 7. It’s easy to criticize what is happening in Israel from afar; but as has been noted for decades, the world is eager to criticize Israel. Moshe’s plea to God teaches that we are still the best hope for the future of decency and humanity in the world. Let’s do our best to live the best version of our lives using the mitzvot and values of the Torah. We will thereby strengthen Moshe’s argument on behalf of our people, and will succeed in ushering the Redemption, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua

The Spice of Life Makes Life Worth Living

By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin The Torah ends our parsha with the commandment to make the golden Mizbach Ketoret, the Incense Altar. Many commentaries ask why this utensil’s instruction is deferred until the very end of Parshat Tetzaveh, long after all the other utensils had been specified in Parshat Terumah. It seems that the Incense Altar was not the same as the other utensils, which were integral to Temple service. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno suggests that all of the other Temple services and their respective utensils – the lighting of the Menorah, the offering of the sacrifices, the baking of the show-bread –were all necessary in order to create a repository for the Shechinah, allowing Hashem to rest His Divine presence within our people. But the Ketoret (incense) offering was not meant to bring the Shechinah. Rather, once the Shechinah was brought down by the other requisite Temple services, it was only fitting to offer incense as a show of respect to Hashem whose Presence was manifest in this holy place. In the same vein, Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk demonstrates from the Talmud that the incense’s offering was not as reliant upon the specific altar utensil. For all other services, if the utensil was missing or deficient, the service could not be performed. For example, if the sacrificial altar was broken or missing a piece, all sacrifices could no longer be brought until the altar was repaired. But in the absence of an Incense Altar, incense could still be brought. This, too, indicates that there’s something different about the Ketoret service.

The menorah and incense

But this only begs the question: Why is the Menorah lighting, for example, so vital an ingredient to bringing Hashem’s presence among us, whereas the Ketoret offering was not? Why is it treated with less formality and strict protocol than the other services? Furthermore, the Torah says (30:-7-8) that the incense of the Mishkan must be offered twice daily, once in the morning, and once in the evening. But the Torah makes this statement in an unusual context, pointing out that the incense must be offered in concert with the work done with the Menorah. In the morning, the Kohen must offer the incense in the middle of his work in cleaning out the burnt out wicks of the Menorah. In the evening, the Kohen must offer the incense immediately before the lighting of the Menorah. Why does the Torah connect the burning of the incense with the lighting of the Menorah? Although the entire Temple service is quite foreign to us, we can find deep meaning about the human condition in these arcane practices. The lighting of the Menorah represents and stimulates the sense of sight, whereas the burning of the Ketoret represents and stimulates the sense of smell. In this context, Maimonides suggests that the reason for burning incense in the Temple is to remove any offensive odor that one might encounter when entering the Mishkan with all of its freshly slaughtered animals on a hot day. The incense would alleviate the overpowering smell and would provide instead a positive olfactory experience.

The role of smell in our lives

Which sense is more impactful and necessary for human survival – the sense of smell or the sense of sight? One of the side-effects of the Covid virus was the temporary loss of smell and taste. Can you imagine if, instead of taking away one’s sense of smell, the virus took away one’s sight? There would have been absolute pandemonium and utter terror at the prospect of going blind, even temporarily. But lose your smell and taste for a few days? Not so terrible. But we shouldn’t be quick to dispense with the importance of the Ketoret and the sense of smell. Note the role it plays in multiple stories in the Torah. It is the offering that Nadav and Avihu brought into the Holy of Holies, thinking that this would be most pleasing to Hashem (Lev. 10:1-2). It is also the offering that Korach’s 250 elders brought in their censer pans, thinking that Hashem would choose them over Moshe, only to discover that their offering brought about their destruction (Num. 16:35). The Ketoret was also used by Aharon to stay a plague in Parshat Korach (17:11-13). What is this quality of the Ketoret that makes it attractive as an offering, and why does it have this ability to stay a plague?

A beneficial relationship or not?

Consider that it may very well be that the less vital role of the Ketoret – and its accompanying sense of smell –is the very thing that makes it so desirable and special. All of the korbanot that are offered to Hashem on the main altar – animal flesh, flour offerings, and libations – have nutritive qualities that represents the concept of “feeding” the Almighty His due, in the hopes that He will reciprocate and feed us that which is vital for our existence: parnassah, health, etc. (in the same way that the sense of sight is vital to our existence). But the truly righteous person is inspired to serve G-d NOT because he or she wishes to garner some benefit from the Almighty. Rather, he or she wishes to show honor and homage to their Creator without the expectation of anything in return. The greatest gratification is not doing something which garners things in return, but rather knowing that you have made a difference in the larger scheme and that your Creator loves you because of it. The Ketoret represents specifically that ingredient in life that is NOT vital to our survival, but nevertheless makes life worth living. This is what sweet-smelling fragrances achieve as well. We can certainly survive without fragrance, but what a bland and tasteless life it would be without our olfactory senses intact. This is why Nadav and Avihu felt that the Ketoret was the appropriate offering for an extemporaneous show of their love to Hashem. It wasn’t in order to curry favor for any of their needs, but rather to show their love and desire to achieve ultimate closeness as the inherent gratification for their offering.

Ketoret and a 'higher' place

This is also the key to the Ketoret’ ability to stay a plague. The fragrance of incense represents the higher sense of quality of life. One who takes time to smell the roses is not just surviving, but is living in the moment. It is that high sense of living that wards off the Angel of Death and allows a person to survive a plague. It is also the reason why, immediately after Shabbos when our “neshamah yeteirah” (added soul) leaves us, we revive ourselves with incense, demonstrating that despite Shabbos’ departure, we will still find life purpose in the days ahead. We are all “surviving” in the midst of war, a war that is taking a great toll on so many. We look forward to a time when we no longer be in survival mode, but rather living with the added “fragrances” of life. Indeed, it is still possible to live in the moment even during difficult times. Our goal should be to find the daily pleasures of life even amidst the pain. Finally, in describing the Messiah, Isaiah says that he will be imbued with the unique ability to see people for whom they really are. The navi thus says that instead of judging people with his eyes and ears as one would normally, the Messiah will (Is. 11:3) “וַהֲרִיח֖וֹ בְּיִרְאַ֣ת יְקֹוָ֑ק” – “smell out the fear of G-d” within people. The Ibn Ezra explains that the sense of smell is uncanny in its truthful detection: “Sometimes the sense of hearing errs in that it might hear something that’s not really there. The sense of sight might also mistake something stationary as moving. Only the sense of smell never misperceives.” As we continue to rebuild our people from the ashes of tragedy, we will continue to regain our sense of smell. I encourage you to smell the roses and resume living your life to the fullest. Let’s imbibe the sweet fragrance of the Ketoret together in the days to come. Let’s see the Temple service once again, together in Yerhushalayim, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua

“Mishkan” vs. “Mikdash”

By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin What is the correct Hebrew name for the Tabernacle that God commanded the Jews to construct in the desert? That’s easy: It’s called the “Mishkan.” However, the very first time the Torah identifies the structure, Hashem calls it a “Mikdash” (25:8): “וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם” – “They shall make for me a ‘Mikdash,’ and I will dwell in their midst.” The edifice is mentioned by name an additional 19 times in our parsha, but each time it is called “Mishkan!” What, then, is the difference between a Mikdash and a Mishkan, and why are there two terms for the very same thing? The Talmud acknowledges that the correct term for the temporary portable edifice that the Jews built in the desert is “Mishkan,” and the correct term for the Temple in Jerusalem is “Mikdash.” The reason why the Torah first calls the Mishkan a “Mikdash” is to teach that the technical halachot of ritual impurity and other holy protocols apply equally to both the Mishkan of the desert and the Beit HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem. I might have thought, the Talmud explains, that there are certain additional holy aspects to each edifice, and so Scripture needed to connect them, demonstrating that both structures occupy the same level of holiness. But we are still left with the question: Why are two different words used to describe two buildings which have essentially the same function, namely, a holy edifice for worshipping God? The commentaries note a number of differences between the words, “Mikdash” and “Mishkan.” Here are some of those differences:

Two building, two names

1. On the basic level, the word “Mikdash” is a sanctified place. This word describes the job of the Jewish people in building the edifice. They needed to “sanctify” it and make it distinct and separate from their own homes and other structures. In exchange for building a holy place that is habitable for Hashem, God promised, “וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם” – “I will dwell in their midst.” The word “Mishkan” derives from the word, “Shekhinah,” the infusion of God presence, as it were, into the edifice that Bnei Israel had sanctified. Put another way: “Mikdash” represents Israel’s role in this project, and “Mishkan” represents God’s reaction to that effort. 2. The Mishkan was a portable edifice; whenever the Jews encamped in a new place in the desert, they reconstructed the Mishkan, and it regained its holy status. The Beit HaMikdash, by contrast, was fixed permanently on one piece of real estate, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, never to be relocated. 3. As per the Talmud cited above, the Mishkan’s holiness was temporary. The edifice was only meant to be utilized until Bnei Israel would find a permanent place for building a Temple. By contrast, the Temple was meant to last perpetually. Even after its destruction, the Temple Mount retains its sanctity. 4. Both the Mishkan and the Temple were meant as places for communion with God. However, the method of Divine communion in the Mishkan was primarily achieved when God rested His Shekhinah among the people in order for Him to communicate the laws of the Torah to Moshe. Sacrifices were also brought in the Mishkan, but this was only its secondary function. The Temple, by contrast, created Divine communion solely through the Jews’ bringing their korbanot (sacrifices). God never communicated Torah law via the Temple.

Mikdash and mishkan today

We might apply these four distinctions between Mikdash and Mishkan to our own lives: 1. The Kotzker was known to say: “Where is God? Any place where you let Him in.” Our job is to construct the “Mikdash.” If we live our lives with dignity, moderation, and morality, then we can expect Divine influence in our lives. The Shechinah can only rest upon those who properly invest in living a life dedicated to Torah study and mitzvot, and create a welcoming place for God to rest within. 2. There’s value in knowing that there are two types of holy places: the portable ones, and the ones fixed in place. Tradition teaches that we should assign specific places and times for spiritual efforts. That is why we have designated holy days, and designated places of holiness. The authorities advocate that a person should designate one spot, known as a makom kavua, whether in the synagogue or in the home, which is reserved for prayer. The human psyche reacts better to the idea of transcendence when it is bounded by specific times and places. At the same time, we often find ourselves traveling through the deserts of the world, whether literally or figuratively. We should attempt to create holiness even in places where holiness is not to be found. In the desert, we anointed the Mishkan utensils in order to imbue them with a holiness that was not endemic to the desert environment. We can do the same while in our own deserts. Whether it’s assembling a minyan at the airport, or putting together a minyan amidst the rubble in Gaza, we can create holiness anywhere. We should never be embarrassed to express ourselves religiously in public. 3. Rav Kook teaches something profound: The Mishkan was a prerequisite to the Temple in Jerusalem. Something as transcendent and holy as the Divine Presence could not initially rest in something permanently ensconced within our physical world. The Mishkan needed to be a temporary edifice in order for Hashem’s transcendence to feel “comfortable” descending into it. Only after Moshe and the Jewish people expressed great love and desire for a more permanent home, did Hashem allow His presence to rest in a permanent edifice. I was just at a new restaurant in the neighborhood, where they advertised that they were having a “soft launch.” I asked the owner why he didn’t just open up fully right away. He responded that both he and his partner were not coming from the foodservice industry, and they needed to ease themselves into this new venture before committing to a full-service restaurant. The same is true with any spiritual endeavor. No one should go from zero to 100 in one fell swoop. We always advise baalei teshuvah and others who are assuming new responsibilities in life: Take it slow, and ease your way into your new role. This is the only way to succeed, especially when attempting something that is spiritually monumental. 4. Finally, utilize your holy places, especially your shul, for both worship (Mikdash) and Torah study (Mishkan). Both are holy endeavors, and both create communion with God. One is not a holier endeavor than the other, even though they serve different functions. We need both a Mishkan and Mikdash in our lives.

Making a place for God in our lives

Rav Yitzchak Hutner (d. 1980) is credited with the moving poem, “בלבבי משכן אבנה”, which has been popularized as a beautiful song (which is actually based on a poem written by Rav Elazar Azkari of the 16th century). The lyrics translate as: In my heart I will build a Mishkan for His glorious honor. In this Mishkan I will establish an altar for the corners of His glory. For an eternal light, I will use the fire of the Akeidah. For a sacrifice, I will offer up to Him my only soul. We can use these parshiyos which detail the Mishkan’s construction to try our best to sanctify our lives with efforts that will make us a place for God to feel welcome. Whether it’s our home, our workplace, or our vacation spots, let’s welcome Hashem into our spaces, so that we can commune with Him at the Redemption, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua

Community vs. Individual

By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin Many commentaries ask why the Mishpatim, the civil laws presented in our parsha, come immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Some observe that the very basis for a Torah society is the structuring of civil law to ensure that society functions properly. Without Derekh Eretz – a civility-based society – there can be no Torah, so Mishpatim must be the foundation of any Torah community. We can frame this another way: the Torah was presented to an entire nation. We received the Torah “כאיש אחד בלב אחד” – “as one person, with one heart.” It’s our national credo that we are ONE people. But therein lies the problem: when you imagine the Mt. Sinai experience, there are no individual faces, just a national entity of Am Yisrael. One might get the misimpression that the individual does not count in a Torah society. The collective is everything, and the individual’s wellbeing doesn’t matter. This is especially dangerous for a group of people who have just left slavery, where they were oppressed by having their humanity and individual rights stripped from them. “We were faceless slaves to Pharaoh. Are we to be faceless once again? Just another number in this Torah-based collective?”

An individual's uniqueness

To create a counterbalance, Hashem, through the Mishpatim, emphasizes that, despite the need for national unity, we cannot lose sight of the rights and the uniqueness of each individual. No matter how important national unity is, it cannot come at the expense of the poor and the oppressed. A criminal, no matter how important they may be to Am Yisrael, must be judged as a criminal, and justice for the individual must prevail, no matter the cost to the communal structures. Yuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and is a former White House staffer under President Bush. The thesis of his latest work is that we live now in a time of tremendous anxiety, loneliness, and isolation. There is a greater mistrust of organizations and institutions than ever before. People are loathe to join organizations, and prefer to view themselves as outsiders instead of belonging to a group. Part of this is due to social media and the online isolation that breaks social structures. But Levin points to another factor as to why people no longer trust social constructs: organizations were originally focused on influencing their constituents and helping them become better people. Today, however, institutions have transformed from “formative” to “performative.” Instead of a political party, religious institution, or community entity trying to influence its constituents, it focuses largely on advertising its brand and trying to get as many people as possible to follow it and give it a “like.” The measure of success in our online world is getting the most traffic to your web site and the most approval. This is the “performative” aspect of our institutions. Instead of our institutions influencing the individual, the institution has now become a captive of the individuals who either give it a thumbs up or a thumbs down. As Levin states: “We have replaced a culture of integrity with a culture of celebrity – in which achievement is measured by prominence and legitimacy by affirmation.”

The needs of the many, the needs of the one

There are many examples of this in the secular world, whether it be a media outlet, a political party or politician, or a university campus. But it has also crept into the way we do business in the Jewish world. On a recent visit to Israel, I was visiting a wonderful rosh yeshiva friend, who is sincere and idealistic. He wants to help every single talmid of his yeshiva and is extremely reluctant to turn away anyone. He recently accepted a boy who had been asked to leave a different yeshiva, and was sharing with me his concern as to whether he had made the right choice by accepting this young man. Was he creating problems for the yeshiva? “At what point,” he asked, “do we say, ‘enough is enough’?” I expressed to him that obviously the balance between the klal (communal) and the prat (individual) is very sensitive, and only you, as the rosh yeshiva, can make that determination. But I will say this: If you feel that this individual is hampering your ability to serve the other talmidim, if he’s so disruptive to the yeshiva or if he’s draining resources to the point where you can’t properly educate and inspire the other students, i.e., if he’s hampering your ability to “formative,” then you are justified in letting him go. But, if your primary concern is the good name of the yeshiva, and this boy is ruining your reputation, but you feel that over time you can serve both this young man and raise him up, and at the same time not compromise on your service to the other boys, then you have no right to ask him to leave. Your desire to be “performative” and shine in the public sphere is insufficient reason to give up on a holy neshamah. One way that we can all work on rectifying the current “performative” attitude is to realize how we sometimes contribute to the problem. Any time we as individuals advertise our own brand on social media – be it the posting of our latest vacation or the delicious food on our plate for dinner at the restaurant – and create that kind of performance art, we are being “performative.” If self-promotion is the mainstay of our own lives, we can expect no better from our institutions.

Hiding the aura

Let’s take a lesson from Moshe who, upon coming down from Mt. Sinai after receiving the Second Tablets, realized that there was a light shining off of his face, representing a spiritual greatness that he had attained as a result of saving the Jewish people from destruction after the sin of the Golden Calf. Rabbi Chaim Yoseph David Azoulay, the Chid”a, suggests that Moshe’s face shone as a result of the Jewish people’s forfeiture of their spiritual greatness after they sinned with the Golden Calf. The special “glory” that was forfeited by the people was conferred upon Moshe instead. When Bnei Israel saw this, they became extremely frightened and deeply humiliated. This shining of Moshe’s face represented to them their utter failure in their encounter with the Divine. In Moshe’s face they saw what really should have been their glory, but which they lost because of their impetuousness. Note how sometimes our behavior is the exact opposite of Moshe Rabeinu. When we achieve some greatness in life, we jump to TikTok or Instagram to flaunt our aura. We’d do better to learn from Moshe to put a veil over our face and hide the aura. In this way, we reduce jealously, and refrain from contributing to the social trend of life as a performance art. In this way, we can focus more on how we can influence others positively. May our efforts to be strong individuals while at the same time realizing that we can only accept the Torah as part of the klal, as being a member of “עם ישראל” bring us to the redemption speedily, bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua

Running Away and Running Towards

By Rabbi Daniel Korobkin One of the most important theological divides among Jewish thinkers hinges on the answer to the following question: When God first introduced Himself to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, why did He say (20:2), “אָנֹכִי יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם” – “I am Hashem your Lord, who took you out of Egypt”? Would it not have been more appropriate for God to introduce Himself as the Creator of heaven and earth?! Would that not have made a greater impression on the Jewish people, that they would know their God was not a “local” deity, restricted to one event and one people, but rather the universal God of all? Two great rabbis of the early 12th century, who were also good friends, debated this issue. R. Yehuda HaLevi believed that the revelation at Mt. Sinai was the necessary foundation for our entire belief in God, because it was a face-to-face encounter with the Divine, not just an intellectual proof to the existence of God. The Jewish people adhere to a belief in a God they experienced first-hand. This is why, when Hashem introduced Himself to Bnei Israel, He told them to believe in the God that you yourselves experienced (or, by extension, your ancestors), and not just in the God who is the logical Creator, but who no one, with their own eyes, witnessed creating.

Intellectual proof of God

The Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, suggested something completely contrary. He believed, like the Rambam, that an intellectual proof of God’s existence was actually the higher level of belief, because only someone provincial needs to be proven that something is true by being shown it with their own eyes. A truly sophisticated intellectual can internalize the truth of God without ever being shown a miracle. Ibn Ezra bisects the verse: the first part, “I am Y-H-V-H, your Lord,” is manifest to the thinking individual without any further demonstration. The second part, “who took you out of Egypt,” was only written for the uninitiated, more simplistic thinkers, who needed “proof” of God through witnessing the Exodus miracles themselves. Who is greater: He who believes without seeing the miracle, or he who believes because he has seen the miracle himself? This debate – belief based on intellect vs. belief based on personal experience of the Divine – has been a point of divide between great rabbinic thinkers ever since. There is another way of answering this question, which is provided by the Mekhilta midrash. The Rabbis state that when God appeared to the Jews in Egypt and at the Red Sea, He appeared as “a man of war,” a very strong deity, who was like a young, vigorous man leading his army into battle. But when Hashem appeared to the Jews at Mt. Sinai, He appeared to them as a wise and wizened elder. Lest anyone think that there were two deities – one, the strong warrior god of the Exodus, and two, the sage god of Mt. Sinai – Hashem dispelled that thought by introducing Himself as the very same God who took them out of Egypt. My guise may change, but it is still Me, “Anochi.”

A God of wisdom and might

This Midrash also helps us understand why the Torah introduces the events at Mt. Sinai with the words (19:1), “On the third month after the Jews left Egypt, on that very day, they came to the Sinai desert.” The Torah is making a direct correlation between the events of the Exodus and the giving of the Torah to reinforce this idea that it was the same God responsible for both events. It goes deeper. Consider that there are two ways to relate to a God who provides salvation. One is when someone is running away from a threat, and God comes and saves that person. The second is when a person is not in distress, and is not running away from anything. Rather, he or she feels that they need meaning and purpose, and so run towards the God who provides them with that sense of fulfillment and attachment to a Higher Power. God appeared to the Jews as a mighty warrior when we were leaving Egypt. He was our powerful God who could save us from our persecutors. But this God wasn’t offering us anything other than His might. At Mt. Sinai, however, God presented Himself as the wise old man, the source of wisdom from whom people seek counsel and purpose, and flock towards in order to have their lives count for something.

Saving us from assimilation

When Hashem said that He was the same God who took us out of Egypt, He was connecting the two guises, as if to say: If I am only that God who saved you from the darkness of the outside world, this is not enough. You need a reason to run toward Me even when nothing in your environment is hounding you. I am the source of goodness, not just the savior from badness. The respective imageries of the Exodus vs. Mt. Sinai are starkly different. At the Exodus, Hashem saved us from the water of the Red Sea. At Mt. Sinai Hashem wanted us to witness a fire atop the mountain (19:18). The Egyptians tried to “wash us away” by smothering us with their values. Hashem would not allow us to “dissolve” in their overpowering current, and saved us from succumbing to Egyptian assimilation. When He brought us to Mt. Sinai, He showed us that He was the fire, the source of light and warmth. It was as if to say: I would much prefer that instead of viewing me as the God who saves you from drowning, you view Me as the God to whom you are drawn because of the light that I bring to your lives.

Seeing, and not seeing the light of Torah

All too often, our motivation for being Jewish is because we point a finger to the outside world and recognize how truly messed up it is. Judaism brings us the consoling oasis of sanity amidst a “woke” world that has run amuck. That’s fine and good, but if our sole motivation for latching onto the Torah is because of the wasteland outside our community, then instead of running toward the light, we have instead merely run away from the darkness. Our motivation should not be based on the “tum’ah” (impurity) of the “goyishe velt,” but rather the inherent beauty of the Torah, despite our familiarity and integration with the outside world. This is why Moshe sent Yitro away before the giving of the Torah (18:27). The righteous Yitro greatly admired and worshipped the God who saved the Jews from the evils of Egypt, but failed to see the God who would be the bringer of the light of Torah to a nation who no longer faced any danger. It’s fine to point at all the problems in the world today; they’re all around us. But we’d do better if we instead focus upon all the timeless beauty, kindness, and wisdom contained within our Torah. If your primary motive for being Jewish is the fire-and-brimstone, gloom-and-doom stuff, it may be enough for you, but you haven’t yet seen the fire atop Mt. Sinai. May we always focus on the positive light contained within the Torah, and follow the beacon that leads to the ultimate Redemption, may we see it bb”a.
Parshat Hashavua
1 2 3 13