Take yourself back. Stand in that holy place. Be one of the myriad of Israelites assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, preparing to encounter God, to meet God face-to-face, to see God’s Presence, to hear God’s Voice. Imagine what it would be to confront the Ultimate, to be a part of a union between heaven and earth, between eternity and now, between infinite God and finite humanity.
At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we find the Israelites at a rather dark hour. They had nearly revolted against their leader when water became scarce, losing faith in him and in the God who brought them out from Egypt. They cannot make decisions for themselves, cope with their freedom, or look to each other for advice and support. Each and every one saw himself/herself as alone against the world; Moses too sees himself alone—separated from his wife and children.
So Moses’s father-in-law Jethro (Hebrew, Yitro) brings Moses’s family together and gives his son-in-law some very good advice. Instead of Moses handling all the people’s disputes himself, Jethro tells Moses to appoint chiefs and establish a hierarchy of others who can help make the decisions—give power to the people—trust them. Show them that you are not the only conduit to God, but that they themselves can seek God too.
And in the next chapter, something is different. The people have rallied together and act as a unit. From the many is born a oneness. The Israelites who once saw themselves only as a collection of individuals suddenly learn to be a community. In Exodus 19:2, the text tells us twice that the Israelites make camp. The first time is related in the plural: vayachanu bamidbar, “they . . . encamped in the wilderness.” The second time is different; the plural is made singular: vayichan Yisrael, “Israel encamped.”
Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon, in his masterwork Present at Sinai, quotes the M’chilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in reflecting on this verse: “When they journeyed they were divided, and when they encamped they were divided; whereas here it says ‘they encamped (Vayichan) there’ [in the singular, implying that] they had been given to feel a shared kindliness (Hanayah), so that they could love one another and thus be able to receive the Torah,” (S.Y. Agnon, Present at Sinai [Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1994], p. 52).
And when Israel is one, something happens that never happened before—God decides to appear before all the Children of Israel—to greet this people. The mountain, the place, the time: all are basically unimportant. What is important is not where the people are physically, but where they are spiritually.
Think of the power to be found in just a single bond of love we might share with just one other, a force at once overwhelming and transformative. But imagine that power to be multiplied. Imagine what it would mean for an entire people to be held together by a vast, interwoven web and network of love. That is precisely what the Torah seeks to describe in the parashah read on this Shabbat. This extraordinary sense of unity of purpose, of synchronicity and understanding, is something unfamiliar to Moses.
God has a message for Moses—a message God says must be related to “the house of Jacob” and “the children of Israel” (19:3). The midrash in the M’chilta d’Rabbi Yishmaelnotes that the entire community was to be addressed, both the women and the men (Agnon, ibid.) And yet in verse 7, Moses summons only the elders and puts before them all that God had commanded him. But somehow, the people know that Moses has it wrong. They know that the divisions they needed before would only hamper their ability to cleave to God now. And so this vast multitude answers Moses in unison: “ ‘All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!’ ” (19:8). The rebuke is loving and clear. The people will follow God and Moses needs to be one of them.
This condition of unity is so important that God threatens death to anyone who may break away (19:12). It is only through this vast web of relation that God can appear to them all together as one. It is only the sustained commitment to love and unity—a commitment they must hold for three days of preparation—that will enable this awesome moment of meeting. For them to meet their God who is One, the people must become one themselves.
And what comes from that incredible moment of meeting is the Torah, the Ten Commandments: the notion that we should honor our father and mother; keep the Sabbath; refuse to murder, steal, or covet. Each of these separate admonitions rests on the same foundation—that holiness is to be found in loving our neighbor as ourselves. And if we seek to make our way back to that awesome encounter our people shared with God, then we will endeavor to reach out with our hearts and souls with love, and seek to repair all the brokenness that keeps us apart. A relationship with God is built through weaving a web of relation with each other.
Rabbi Dan Levin is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, Florida.