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? 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. Two 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.
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.
Adapted from one of the multiple essays on this parsha in Unlocking the Torah Text by Rabbi Shmuel Goldin.