Parashat Yitro 5781

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Every Action has an Equal and Opposite Reaction
A D’var Torah for Parashat Yitro
By Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

Three months after leaving Egypt, our ancestors arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai. God called Moses to the mountain and gave him the words by which he would prepare the people for a remarkable event. Moses would tell the people that God desires us to be God’s treasure, God’s nation of priests, God’s holy people. In three days, God would descend to the top of the mountain while the people stood at its foot. God would be revealed to the people, and in God’s own voice, the people would begin to receive the Torah.

Three days later, the moment arrived. With thunder and lightning, a heavy cloud and an ever louder sound of the shofar, God “appeared.” The people shuddered and trembled as Moses brought them to the foot of the mountain.

And then the voice of God was heard.

What follows in the parasha are the Aseret HaDibrot – what we call the Ten Commandments. And as important as they are, let me call your attention to what happens after they conclude.

“The entire people saw the thunder and the flames (lightning) and the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain; the people saw and stood from afar.” (Exodus 20:15)

Apparently, they retreated at some point. Surely they were not “afar” when the scene began.

“They said to Moses: You speak to us and we will hear; let God not speak to us lest we die.” (verse 16)

Moses tried to bring the people back closer explaining that they should not mistake awe for fear. But it didn’t work. Verse 18 again repeats that the people retreated and “stood afar.”

How interesting. The people were prepared to receive the law but not to enter into a closeness with the Law Giver. They were afraid. God, for them, at that moment, was a Being to be feared – a great motivator to obedience – but not loved. In truth, God had not used the “L” word yet, though images of a treasure and a holy (kadosh – kiddushin) nation are good hints. Nonetheless, the people were not ready for that.

Let us ask – when did this retreat actually happen? It would seem that they backed off after the second commandment. Evidence for that is the fact that the first two commandments are phrased in the first person: I am the Lord who brought you…. And you shall have no other gods before Me.

By the third commandment and continuing to the end, the phrasing is in the third person: You shall not take the name of God in vain….  This suggests that it was Moses who spoke those words and not God.

So as not to break up the flow of the Ten Commandments, we learn only after completion that the people retreated and asked Moses to be the intermediary.

This may all be very interesting, but in truth, after the Torah tells us about the retreat of the people comes one of the most frightening verses of the Torah. It is not much noticed, but listen:

(Verse 19) “And Hashem spoke to Moses, say this to the Children of Israel: You have seen that I have spoken to you from the heavens…”

Wait. The heavens? Wasn’t God on earth? Wasn’t God at Mt. Sinai? What is going on?

It seems that in the spiritual realm, just as in the world of physics, every action has its equal and opposite reaction. Even as our ancestors retreated from the foot of the mountain, God retreated from the top. The scene that began with God and the children of Israel so close, ends with more distance between them. In this sense, the story of Sinai has a sad ending.

But the story is not over. It is not over to this day. Our ancestors and God will try to work their way back together. It won’t be easy. There will be a golden calf and the building of a mishkan, some angry moments and some tender ones.

And we live in this sugya as well. Our relationship with God – the love that we share – is always a work in progress. Our parasha reminds us that we are empowered in this relationship. God responds to us. Yes, it is true that when we retreat, God may as well. But it also works the other way. In fact, when we move closer to God, God will move closer to us by an even greater measure, as the rabbis taught us, “Open for me an opening the size of the eye of a needle and I will open for you a gate as wide as that of a palace.” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:2)

Sinai may have given us the Ten Commandments. But more importantly, the parasha gives us the knowledge that when we feel distant from God, we have the power to draw God closer than ever.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is Director of Fieldwork and a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.