Bearing Witness to Torah
The Covenant ceremony at Sinai is the pivot on which the rest of Torah turns. Everything that precedes Sinai in the Torah’s narrative leads up to it. Everything that comes afterward—in the Torah, the Bible and Judaism as a whole—follows from the fact of Covenant and works out its consequences for Israel and the world. Your life and mine are shaped by the account presented in this week’s parashah. I would like to suggest two major ways in which that is so.
First, the Covenant established Judaism as more than religion alone. The Creator of heaven and earth, for reasons we are not told in the Torah and will likely never understand, wants human partners to help complete the work of Creation. The world is not good enough as it is. Human beings are called to assist in the work of making it better. That is why God “came down” for the meeting at the mountaintop. The “revelation” at Sinai to which Israel is summoned does not pertain to God’s essence—which remains hidden from mortal eyes and minds—but to the gift of Jewish (and, by extension, human) obligation. “All the earth is mine,” God declares, “and you shall be a kingdom of priests and holy nation for me” (Exod. 19:5–6).
If God had wanted to establish a religion at Sinai, there would have been no need for a “kingdom” or “nation.” A church or sect would have been sufficient. The Torah aims at far more than collective belief or individual enlightenment. Its point—witness the content of the Ten Commandments—is nothing less than a different kind of world, composed of just and compassionate societies. The task of creating that world, as Moses puts it in Deuteronomy 6:5, requires love of God with “all your heart, all your soul, all your might.”
Everything that each of us can bring to the work is needed: learning and experience, parenting and profession, art and science, knowledge and wisdom. What is more, the work requires achievement that is more than the sum of individual parts. The Covenant demands that we fulfill it together and needs the best that we can accomplish together—including the difficult work of interpreting the Torah’s meaning in diverse and ever-changing circumstances. Torah requires, in a word, community.
It is striking that the Covenant binds the Children of Israel to one another at the very same moment that it binds them to God. A people is formally established at Sinai, not only a faith. Neither bond is conceivable, in the Torah’s terms, without the other. That people includes “both those who are standing here with us this day before the Lord our God and…those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29:13–14). Each generation of the Children of Israel accepts responsibility for promises made by ancestors long ago, as Moses (Exod. 13:19) fulfilled the promise made to Joseph by his brothers that his bones would be taken out of Egypt by their descendants. It also accepts responsibility for Children of Israel not yet born.
No generation, ours included, can do the work of Covenant well without the assurance that those who follow will pick up where it leaves off. For what we see around us generally looks like wilderness. The Promised Land lies ever ahead, sometimes out of view. Without hope of our children reaching it someday, or their children, we would lack the strength to go forward.
Mordecai Kaplan was correct, therefore, in his fundamental insight that Judaism should be understood “as a civilization”—the culture of a people—rather than as a religion alone. The work of Judaism required not only synagogues (places of worship) but kehillot (all-embracing communities). Kaplan wanted to make room inside Judaism and Jewish communities for Jews who had lost faith in God as they understood faith and God. He also wanted to expand the scope of collective Jewish activity to include all the areas of Jewish culture that contribute to the Covenant’s fulfillment: history, literature, language, folk customs, social structure, home ritual—and, last but not least, Zionism: the building of a society guided by Jewish civilization, in service of Covenant.
Kaplan’s vision of Judaism has Parashat Yitro on its side. The God of all the earth wants all the earth transformed, and regulates religion as a means to that end. Little attention is paid in these chapters to belief as such. The thrust of the Ten Commandments is almost entirely ethical in nature, and the principles set forth are quickly followed in the very next parashah, Mishpatim, by translation into the concrete specificity of law.
This is the stuff of community, of society, of a better world built up one community at a time. Moses’s work as prophet is to take God’s words to “the people” and “the people’s words” to God. The assent of Israelite individuals would not have been enough. It still isn’t. “All the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do'” (Exod. 24:3). Religion is needed, and more than religion. Only so can the work of Covenant proceed.
That is not to say that individuals are not addressed at Sinai. The Covenant is collective, but its commandments are given in second person singular. God’s words are meant to penetrate to the very core of the individuals who hear them. The Sinai Covenant changes the lives of Jews who accept its obligations by conferring the precious gift of transcendent meaning. It gives each of us purpose far larger than ourselves. We are held in the hand of divine direction. The Covenant demonstrates, as Abraham Joshua Heschel famously put it, that God is in search of humanity; the result of that search is that each man [or woman] “is not alone.” For we have work to do, and a Partner, our Creator, with Whom to do it.
The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger (1847–1905), captured something of the awesomeness of that fact in his comment on Exod. 20:8, “All the people saw the voices [or: the thunder]”. The verse he cites is one of several in which the text conveys its own inability to describe in language an event that surpasses the power of human understanding. The word translated as voices is kolot, plural of kol—and that word is used successively to connote thunder, the sound of a shofar, and the voice of God. What sense could this last term possibly carry? Did the Israelites hear thunder when God spoke? The ram’s horn? A real, humanlike voice? Does God then possess vocal cords?
The Sefat Emet proposed that the word kolot, ascribed to God, connotes a miracle performed at Sinai. “The voice was that which said, ‘I am the Lord your God’ [20:2]. Each one of Israel saw the root of his or her own life force. With their very eyes each one saw the part of the divine soul above that lives within. They had no need to ‘believe’ the commandments, because they saw the voices. That’s the way it is when God speaks.”
Heschel cites a teaching of Rabbi Akiba to similar effect: “The voice of the Holy One is of fire.” When God spoke at Sinai, the people “saw words of fire emitted from God’s mouth carving themselves onto the tablets.”
Far more than theology is expressed and at stake in these interpretations. Neither the Sefat Emet nor Akiba seems interested in getting to the bottom of the bottomless truth about God’s nature, God’s intentions, or God’s speech. Rather they give voice to the impact of the Covenant on us and on themselves. The world overflows with meaning. We are part of that flow. It moves outside us and within us. There is no cause for despair. For God cares about widows and orphans. God commissions all of us to take care of them and of one another. If the world we inhabit is one shaped by Torah, populated with acts of kindness and justice impelled by Torah, we do not need books or sermons to assure us that Torah is a “tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” We know it, as I know the keyboard on which I type and the mind that directs my typing fingers.
The Sefat Emet and Akiba give voice to the power of religious experience—no less a part of the Sinai Covenant than law, social ethics or the formation of a people. Each nefesh or life force touched by God’s fire bears witness to the Torah’s life-giving power. Such souls testify with all they do that God’s words can burn away dross and trivia, purify a person from sin, terrify in their seriousness of purpose, confound with their difficulty, and give comfort with their enfolding love.
One of the noteworthy mysteries of Parashat Yitro is that chapter 19—preparation for the encounter with God—concludes with Moses down below, with the people, while chapter 20 begins with the report of the words God spoke to Moses, presumably when he was at the top of the mountain. He is above, but he is below. Like God. Like hearers of Torah from that day to this who accept the work of Covenant and are forever changed as a result.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.