Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shemot‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
The physical posture of the Israelites during the Revelation at Sinai is clearly delineated in advance when, preparatory to Matan Torah, God instructs Moshe: “Set a boundary for the people roundabout saying, ‘Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge; whoever touches the mountain shall certainly die…”
This commandment of hagbala (setting a boundary), however, will not be divinely enforced. Instead, God commands the Israelites to execute anyone who crosses the mandated perimeter.
Even the most familiar scenes of our history warrant critical assessment.
Why is the moment of closest contact between man and God marked by divinely mandated distance, on pain of death? Why must the Israelites remain at the foot of Mount Sinai during Revelation?
Furthermore, in a setting marked by monumental supernatural miracles, why does God leave the enforcement of the boundary around Mount Sinai to man? God can certainly protect the perimeter surrounding the mountain through any number of divinely ordained means.
What are the lessons to be learned from this God-orchestrated scene at Sinai?
A fascinating rationale for the phenomenon of hagbala is offered by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. The physical setting at Sinai, says Hirsch, is designed to prove that the word of God came “to the people” rather than “out of the people.” By insisting that the Israelites remain at the foot of Sinai to receive divine law, God clearly demonstrates for all to see that the people themselves are not the authors of that law.
The foundations of Jewish law are objective, eternal and not subject to changes wrought by time and circumstance. The Torah is not the product of a nation contemporary with the time of Revelation, but a divinely ordained document speaking to all times and places.
Moving beyond Hirsch’s suggestion, the decree of hagbala also reflects a fundamental dialectic lying at the core of man’s connection to God. At the moment of Revelation, as God launches His eternal relationship with His chosen people, He uses the scene at Sinai to define the very parameters of that relationship.
The God-man relationship will be forged out of a tension between distance and familiarity.
On the one hand, God is certainly remote, existing in a realm beyond our comprehension and often acting in ways we simply do not understand. On the other hand, as the psalmist maintains: “God is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him in earnest.” We are meant to see God as accessible, interested and involved in our daily lives, near enough to be “found” if we only seek Him out.
This balance between distance and familiarity in our relationship to God is reflected in many ways within our tradition. Three of them follow.
1. Each day, at climactic moments of our prayer service, we recite the Kedusha, a proclamation of God’s holiness. Central to this proclamation is the vision of the prophet Yeshayahu, who witnesses the heavenly hosts exclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of Hosts; the whole world is filled with His glory.”
To be holy within Jewish thought means to be separate, removed. Three times, in the prophet’s vision, the heavenly beings declare God’s separateness. In Jewish law, the repetition of an event or phenomenon three times creates a reality. God’s absolute remoteness is thus mirrored in the threefold proclamation of the angels.
In the very next breath, however, these very same celestial beings declare, “The whole world is filled with His glory.” God, the angels say, is apparent and easily reached in every aspect of our physical surroundings. We need only look around us to find Him.
The Kedusha thus reflects the dichotomy created by a God who is beyond our ken and who, at the same time, fills the world with His splendor.
2. Two seemingly conflicting elements are essential to the formation of a personal relationship with God: yira and ahava (fear and love): “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His paths, and to love Him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”
You can only love and fear the same being when you embrace the complexity inherent in the bond between you.
This truth is perhaps best demonstrated by focusing on the human associations which, in their own small way, most closely mirror our relationship with God. Consider, for example, the contradictory currents that course through a healthy parent-child relationship or a strong teacher-student bond. These relationships are not one-dimensional. A parent who tries to become his child’s friend (a phenomenon which is unfortunately much too common in our own day) will simply not be an effective parent. A rabbi or teacher who forgoes the respect and authority due his position loses some of his ability to successfully educate. Yet, while maintaining the space demanded by the relationship, both the parent and the teacher must still remain – each to different degrees – accessible, warm and caring.
The complexity of the parent-child bond is, in fact, codified in halacha through two distinct sets of laws that are designed to mold and govern the attitude of a child to his parent.
The laws of kavod (honor) speak to the personal care that must be shown to parents during times of need, such as infirmity and old age.
The laws of yira outline the respect that must be shown to parents at all times. Included are the prohibitions of calling a parent by his first name, sitting in a parent’s seat, contradicting a parent in public, etc.
Through the laws of kavod and yira, the halacha reflects the balance meant to be struck between the warmth a child should feel towards his parent and the awe in which that parent must be held.
In a different realm but somewhat parallel fashion, our relationship with God must be forged out of a similar tension.
God, therefore, mandates distance at the moment of His closest contact with man, striking the balance upon which their eternal shared relationship will be built.
3. The Kohanim (priests) are fixtures within the Temple service, representing the nation through the performance of sanctified rites and rituals before God. Even the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), however, is prohibited from entering the Kodesh Kadashim (Holy of Holies), the centerpiece of the Temple, except on the most sacred day of the year, Yom Kippur.
Why shouldn’t the highest Temple functionary be allowed free access to every part of the Temple at all times? Why limit his entry to the holiest site in the world?
Once again, the answer would seem to lie in the balance at the core of our relationship with God. Even the Kohen Gadol might become too familiar in his attitude towards the Holy of Holies and fail to treat this site with the reverence it so richly deserves. By severely limiting the High Priest’s entry into the Kodesh Kadashim, the Torah ensures that he, and by definition the entire nation, will never lose sight of the Temple’s sanctity.
Through these sources and others, our tradition reminds us that we must continually struggle to maintain the balance – rooted at Sinai – between distance and familiarity, so critical to our relationship with God.
If we lose the sense of awe meant to be present in our approach to the divine, our worship becomes pedestrian, rote and uninspired. If, on the other hand, we view God as unreachable and inaccessible, we will never succeed in truly experiencing His personal presence in our lives.
Finally, the commandment of hagbala at Sinai reiterates a message conveyed by God to Moshe earlier on this very same spot. During the vision of the burning bush, God ushered Moshe into leadership with the charge: “Do not come nearer to here. Take off your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is holy ground.” Do not look for Me, Moshe, in esoteric visions of a burning bush. Stand where you are, rooted to the ground. There, sanctity will be created, wherever you stand, as you work My will within your world.
By commanding the Israelites to remain at the foot of Mount Sinai during the onset of Revelation, God now transmits the same message on a national scale: As our shared journey begins, understand full well where and how My Divine Presence will be found. Do not search for Me in the mist-enveloped summits of Sinai. Do not seek Me in lofty, mysterious realms removed from the reality of your lives.
Stay at the base of the mountain, rooted with your neighbors in your world, and there receive My Torah. Remember always that I will enter your lives as you obey the Torah’s laws and pursue its goals. Partner with Me in the creation of sanctity in your world, and through that partnership you will discover and discern My Divine Presence.
We can now also understand why God hands the enforcement of the edict of hagbala to the Israelites, rather than maintaining the designated perimeter Himself, through divine intervention.
The partnership established at Sinai invests the Israelites with immediate personal and societal responsibilities.
As God transmits the law during Revelation, He also launches the process of legal jurisprudence. Included will be the people’s obligation to judge and to punish transgressors, to the best of their ability, as mandated by divine decree.
This responsibility begins immediately. God, therefore, does not enforce His own ruling of hagbala. He instead relegates that task to His new partners, the people themselves.