An Earthen Altar

Yitro By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Feb 14, 2004 / 5764

Revelation is a liminal moment for the Jewish people. It is a moment in which the nation crosses a threshold. Previously, they were dependent on God, just as they had been upon their slave-masters. Now they move toward a relationship based on mutual responsibilities between themselves and the God who cared enough to liberate them. Indeed, these newly freed slaves acquire not only a national but also a personal identity as God addresses them individually. It is as if God speaks to each and every Israelite that stands at the foot of Sinai.

The moment is intense as God reveals God’s Self in all of God’s splendor. Drama pervades the environs as God descends upon Sinai, thunder and lightening envelope the fledgling nation, and the Ten Utterances are spoken into the ears of those present. It is a moment of extreme spiritual power and pure potential – one that sends the imagination of nation running wild and guides a people along an inspired journey. Having experienced the heights of such a Divine encounter, what is the next step for the Israelites? Where are they to go after such an intense interaction with God?

Not surprisingly, God provides the answer toward the close of Parashat Yitro. Immediately after the Sinaitic Revelation, God declares, “you yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens: Alongside Me, therefore, you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold. Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it . . .” (Exodus 20: 19-21). Rashi, the medieval exegete, comments on the phrase, “an altar of earth.” He writes, “the altar must be attached to the ground; it should not be built on columns or some other foundation.” The altar, the means by which we come close to God, must be grounded, rooted in the earth. What is the significance of this teaching in relation to the powerful revelatory experience of Sinai?

While our natural reaction to an overwhelming experience of the divine might be to crave even more Divine immanence and therefore build something akin to the Tower of Babel, God commands us to ground ourselves. By virtue of God’s commandment with respect to the altar, it is as if God says to us, ‘the way by which you enter my presence is through rooting yourself in your world.’ Though divinely inspired with their roots in the heavens, God’s commandments are given to ground us in the world around us, even (especially?) when we seek to commune with or worship the Divine.

Moments of revelation are precious and ephemeral – sweet but elusive. In its wisdom, Judaism is a religion grounded in an ideology of tikkun olam – seeking to repair a broken world. The altar, described by Parashat Yitro, is a powerful symbol of God’s closeness, and even more specifically our striving to be closer to God. How do we achieve that precious goal of closeness to God? It is by virtue of grounding ourselves in the needs of the world around us. It is by being attentive to those in pain and investing ourselves in acts of hesed, kindness, that give, affirm and enrich life here on earth.

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.