A BIG DEAL
Rabbi David Walk
People love pomp and ceremony. We connect the most trivial events with very solemn, and often spectacular, ceremony. The Super Bowl comes to mind, and, of course, Olympiad openings and closings. But we do this all the time. We make a big deal out of very insignificant occasions. Besides sporting events, we have marching bands and balloons for mall dedications and highway overpass openings. I think that people want to celebrate occasions with impressive rites because life is often boring and humdrum. Of course, there are commercial interests as well. The regularity of life requires some excitement; the marketer needs some customers. Voila! We have a massive ceremony. Religions over history have bought into this formula. Few industries have taken advantage of the general public's desire for spectacles more than the God business, or in the ancient world the gods business. So, it's with a little trepidation that I venture into a description and explanation for the major religious rite performed at the end of this week's Torah reading.
Starting last week we have the elaborate description of the giving of the law at Mt. Sinai. It begins with the Jews arriving at the site on the first of the third month. Then there are detailed instructions for getting ready for the big day. Finally, on the sixth of the month we have the sound and light extravaganza of receiving the Ten Commandments. This week this process continues with a long list of mitzvoth, which are the beginning of the rules which will govern an ethical society. These mitzvoth aren't grandiose concepts like belief in God or Shabbat. They are the nitty gritty of a community; helping neighbors (even if you don't like or know them), paying damages, lending and collecting debts, being truthful, returning lost articles and the like. This list ends with a description of the entry into the Promised Land, because these precepts are the building blocks for a successful society in the Holy Land. Then comes chapter twenty-four.
This section describes the ceremony apparently ending this Torah giving process. Even though there is a major controversy over when this ceremony took place (many great scholars, including Rashi, aver that this observance took place before the giving of the Ten Commandments, but for the sake of this article we'll go with the equally impressive list of Torah giants who claim that we have the proper chronology), it seems that we have a closing rite for the Law giving process. So, let's quickly recap the order. We have three days of preparation, then we have the epiphany and Decalogue, next a long series of prosaic laws about how to arrange a just society, and, finally, an impressive closing ritual. This final service includes the hierarchy of the nation arrayed upon the mountain; Moshe first, then Aharon's family, then the seventy elders and finally, at a distance the rest of the people. There's an altar and twelve pillars representing the tribes. Then there are sacrifices and half of the blood is splashed upon the altar. Moshe reads the laws from a scroll and the people proclaim, 'We will do and we will listen (na'aseh v'nishma, perhaps the second verb should be rendered 'obey').' Then the second half of the blood is strewn towards the assembled nation. The leadership is then treated to an apparition which includes the heavenly throne and, somehow, a glimpse of the Divine Presence. The whole process ends with Moshe disappearing into the cloud which enveloped the mountain for the purpose of receiving the two stone tablets. The six chapters describing this whole series of events is called sefer habrit, the Book of the Covenant.
What's the purpose of all this ceremony and ritual? At the beginning of this article I scoffed a bit at the ridiculously lavish ceremonies surrounding sporting events or commercial enterprises. The object of those empty rituals is to convince the gathered throng that these trivial events are truly momentous. Of course, it's all a sham because it's just a game or a new business venture. But what about these rites at the foot of Mt. Sinai? Were they also empty motions to win over a gullible populace? I certainly hope not, because that would make this article equally shallow. I think the key to understanding the true significance of these events is in the sequence of events.
In the ancient world many solemn treaties were accompanied by sacrifices. We saw this with the Patriarchs as well. However in our circumstance, something extraordinary occurred. After the customary sacrifice the terms of the covenant were read (the mishpatim or laws), and the people were inspired to declare na'aseh v'nishma. That changed everything. Our ancestors' profound commitment to obey whatever God would propose precipitated a remarkable response from God. For the first time in history God identified with us. The vision of something Divine was accompanied by the words elokei yisroel, God of Israel. The world will know of God as our God. Now that's cool. There was reciprocal love and respect at Mt. Sinai. Mutuality was achieved in the shadow of the mountain, a confluence of the spirit. We would be God's, and in some way God would be ours.
This amazing ceremony was the backdrop to the true accomplishment of the gathering, namely the consummation of Israel's love affair with God. These were not hollow rituals; these were hallowed commitments. When we read these accounts, it's not about the show and the spectacle. It's about the content of this eternal agreement. The brit entered into at Sinai is eternal, unbreakable and unconditional. Each side commits to adhere to their respective responsibilities, regardless of the other's compliance.
The world is filled with big time pageants, including parades and spectacles and, yes, half time extravaganzas, but they are full of sound and fury (and costume malfunctions) signifying little or nothing. The show's the thing. But that's not true about the revelation at Mt. Sinai. At the foot of the smoldering mountain the display was breathtaking, the wonder was beyond belief, but it wasn't about the spectacle. It was about the content.