Running Away and Running Towards
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.