Insights into Exodus
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein
(February 14, 1998)
I. THE SPECTACLE OF SINAI
"On the third day when it was morning, there was thunder and lightning and a heavy
cloud on the mountain, and the sound of the shofar was very powerful, and the entire
people that was in the camp shuddered...All of Mount Sinai was smoking because Hashem had
descended upon it in the fire; its smoke ascended like the smoke of the furnace, and the
entire mountain shuddered exceedingly." (Chapter 19: 16, 18; Artscroll translation)
From the Torah's account, we learn that the Revelation at Mt. Sinai was a pretty
frightening affair: fire and smoke, the earth quaking and the blast of a shofar waxing
louder. The Midrash (quoted by Rashi) goes further and explains that the Torah's words a
bit later in the parsha, "The entire people saw the thunder...," are meant quite
literally: the Jews saw what was usually heard, they had what is called a synesthetic
But it doesn't stop there. In the book of Devarim,
Moshe tells the
Jewish people, "You have been shown in order to know that Hashem, He is the G-d!
There is none beside Him." (4, 35) Rashi once more quotes a rabbinic teaching, this
time to explain what it means that the Jews were shown in order to know: "When the
Holy One, Blessed be He, gave the Torah, He opened for them the seven heavens; and just as
He split the upper [regions], so He split the lower, and they saw that He was alone."
In other words, the Children of Israel were shown at Sinai a glimpse of the inner
mechanics of the entire universe--from subatomic particles to black holes and beyond,
presumably--so that they would know for certain that Hashem is the sole Ruler of all of
this vast Creation.
With due respect to Titanic, Hashem still takes the
all-time Oscar for special effects. "The envelope, please...And the winner
One may well ask: why did the giving of the Torah have to be such a grand roduction?! If
each of the roughly three million individuals present had merely heard a soft whisper in
the ear, "This is your Creator talking," followed perhaps by a choice
embarassing detail from his or her life that ONLY the Master of the World could have
known, wouldn't that have been enough...even for the most stiff-necked among them, and us?
Did we really need the whole spectacle of fire and smoke and the rest?
I'm sure there are many different answers; I saw two
that I'll mention. Rabbi Elie Munk, zt'l, in The Call of the Torah, writes that we
needed to see Hashem's absolute control over all elements of Creation so that we could be
sure of two things: no other "divinity" could hold a candle to the G-d of
Israel, and--a ore subtle point--"no other truth could exist besides His." (Call
of the Torah: Vol. II, p. 255) In short, there is none beside Him, and no truth besides
the Torah. A heavenly whisper would not have been enough.
A more extended analysis is offered by Rabbi Yerucham
Levovitz, zt'l, great 20th century Torah thinker and educator, in Da'as Chochmah U'Mussar
(Volume 5, 163-166). He explains that the fire and smoke at Sinai were not meant to be
merely a stirring backdrop or even a proof of Hashem's Sovereignty -- which had anyway
been clearly demonstrated in the 10 plagues and the splitting of the Red Sea. Rather, the
supernatural phenomena expressed the quintessential nature of Torah itself: every single
word of Torah shakes all of Creation with its awesome power, and opens the seven heavens
to reveal that There is none beside Him.
At the Red Sea, the Children of Israel experienced a
high level of prophecy: a common serving maid saw more than Ezekiel the prophet, our Sages
tell us. And yet, it did not begin to approach the loftiness of Sinai, where we saw the
King Himself, as it were. This is the loftiness of Torah, which enables us to see the
In other words, Hashem was teaching Torah to Klal Yisrael on Mt. Sinai; ipso facto, there
was fire and smoke, fear and trembling--for that is the essence of Torah, aish dos (a
Indeed, the Talmud tells of a great sage whose Torah
learning created flames around him, and another whose study sizzled birds flying overhead.
Now that would impress them in Hebrew school...
Rabbi Levovitz concludes by quoting the teaching from
Ethics of the Fathers: "If there isn't wisdom, there isn't fear [of G-d], and if
there isn't fear, there isn't wisdom." They go together, Torah and yirah, or more
precisely, they are one and the same; it's not real
Torah learning unless it has with it the awe of Mt. Sinai.
II. WHAT IS ADULTERY?
It's in this week's parsha, in the 10 Commandments: Lo Sinaf--Don't commit adultery.
Of course, it's also been in the news for the last couple of weeks, as people debate
whether or not the President committed it, even if he did have an affair. Was it
technically adultery or not? Is all sexual infidelity included in the Biblical
I'll spare you an in-depth analysis. ("No, please--the details!") But I will
point out one very important point for us Jews to remember: without an Oral Torah, a body
of information transmitted from G-d to Moshe at Sinai on how to understand the Five Books,
we would have NO IDEA of the parameters of this, or any Torah commandment.
In fact, with regard to very many mitzvos, we would be almost completely in the dark:
"...the seventh day is Sabbath to Hashem, your G-d; you shall not to any work
(melacha)..." How does the Torah define work--as a physicist would, or maybe as
an employment counselor? Does this mean that someone who makes a living as a
winetaster may not sip from the Kiddush cup on Shabbos? What about someone who has a job
in a thinktank?! (Thanks to Rabbi Mordechai Becher in Jerusalem for that example.)
And if you think the question is not so important, the Torah thinks otherwise: violating
the Sabbath knowingly was a capital crime. The definition of "work" was a life-
or-death matter! Without some extra information, we would have no idea how to
apply--or observe-- the law. We are probably aware that "work" is defined quite
clearly in the Talmud, the chief repository of our Oral Torah: 39 prohibited activities
which encompass all basic human creative expression. Creative work--within the boundaries
delineated in the Oral Law--would be a better definition of the Hebrew word, melacha, than
There are hundreds of examples of how we are completely
beholden to the Oral Torah to explain the intent of Scripture. (Try making a pair of
tefillin from the description in Exodus: "It shall be a sign upon your arm, and
frontlets between your eyes." Let me know how it turns out.)
I'll let you look up the sources on the prohibition of adultery--and ALL sexual contact
between a married man and another woman. (See Niddah 13b and Shavuos 47b for starters.)
Thank G-d we Jews have an Oral Torah, or it'd be my interpretation against the
Divre Torah from Parshiyot in Genesis
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah
Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923; e-mail address: Yosef18@aol.com
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