Thursday, January 24, 2019

Where in the World is Moses?

The centerpiece of Parashat Yitro is the Decalogue, the Revelation at Sinai, where the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Utterances (also known as the Ten Commandments) were declared. But you may need some Dramamine if you try to identify Moses’ location during this most seminal moment in human history.

Chapter 19 of Exodus describes the preparations for Revelation as the Children of Israel arrived in the Sinai wilderness. Verse 3 informs us that Moses climbed Mount Sinai to receive a message from God for the Children of Israel, describing their chosenness and the miracles God performed on their behalf. Verse 14 states that Moses descended the mountain.

On the day of Revelation, the Children of Israel saw lightning, heard claps of thunder and the enduring sound of the shofar, and the nation of Israel trembled. In the midst of these tremendous natural phenomena, God descends upon Mount Sinai (verse 20) and summons Moses to the top of the mountain. In the very next verse (verse 21), God commands Moses to “go down to the people” and enforce the Divine imperative not to approach the mountain. In verse 24, once again, God commands Moses to, “Go, get you down, and you shall come up, you, and Aaron with you; but let not the priests and the people break through, to come up to the Lord…” The next verse states: “So Moses went down to the people, and spoke to them.” Immediately thereafter (Exodus 20:1), God spoke the words of the Decalogue, the “Ten Commandments.”

Why does God ask Moses to ascend and descend Mount Sinai so many times prior to Revelation?

A Midrash (Sh’mot Rabbah 28:3) advances the notion that had Moses been atop Mount Sinai during the Revelation, the Israelites may have been unclear if the statements emanated from God or from Moses. Moses was therefore dispatched to be with the people so there would be no ambiguity. Why then all the instructions from God for Moses to ascend and descend Mount Sinai, despite being 80 years old and in great shape? Rabbi Shmuel Goldin suggests in his Unlocking the Torah Text that his sorties up and down Mount Sinai were meant to teach Moses a lesson about leadership: Ultimately, the leader is the representative of the people that he or she represents. During the greatest moment in human history, consummating God and the Children of Israel’s relationship, Moses needed to be with those whom he represented and for whom he cared. God wanted Moses to learn this lesson on his own, by going up and down Mount Sinai.

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