parsha of the week

Collectively given, Torah mandates are personal


Though this week’s parsha begins with a story of Yisro, its chronological relationship with the rest of the Exodus narrative is debated by the commentaries. If we ignore this story for a moment, we can see that the events in Refidim, where Israel fought Amalek, and at Messah U’Meribah, where they were provided water, were precursors to their arrival at Mt. Sinai. 

And yet, when they were attacked by Amalek, they were forced to band together to fight a common enemy. While this unity on the military front is not surprising, it did not last in the continued sojourn through the desert, until they got to Mt. Sinai, a place which caused them to come together as one. As Kli Yakar puts it, “the seeking of honor and appointment was the reason behind every fight and plague,” but once they realized how small Mt. Sinai actually was, “then they saw that G-d chooses the humble.”

Seeing Sinai caused them to embrace the feeling of submission and avoid strife so that they could embrace peace. The essence of the mountain, modesty and humility, is what brought about peace among the factions of Israelites who previously had strife with one another.

The Torah speaks in the plural: they came to the Sinai Wilderness (19:1) and they traveled from Refidim, they came to the Sinai wilderness, and they camped in the wilderness, a singular Israel at the Mountain (19:2).

Wilderness-wise they were still many people, many opinions, not united. But when they got to the mountain, realizing G-d would reveal Himself at this particular and specific place, they realized the key ingredient to accepting the Torah was humility. Then they were “as one heart, as one man.”

The Talmud (Shabbos 89b) gives a number of explanations for why the mountain and its surrounding wilderness were called Sinai, rejecting each one by one.

“It’s a play on words,” says Rav Kahana. Sinai reflects nissim (miracles) done for Israel. The Talmud responds, “In that case, it should be called Mt. Nisai!”

The next suggestion is that Sinai almost sounds like siman tov, a place where good things happened to Israel. Well, in that case, the Talmud recommends “it should be called Mt. Simanai!”

The last suggestion is that Sinai reflects the place where sinah (hostility) was descended toward the nations at this mountain.

Another argument of the Talmud is that the mountain’s real name was Horeb, reflective of the hurbah (desolation) which descended to idolators from that place and time.

Rashi explains the “hatred” or the “destruction” to the nations of the world as meaning their moral compass was demonstrably skewed because they did not accept the Torah. I do not believe this means that people who are not guided by the Torah can’t live a moral life, nor does it mean that those who live by the Torah can’t be immoral. There are exceptions to any rule. It just means that the moral compass has a different source.

And yet who did accept the Torah? Not the Israelites as individuals, each with a unique personality, but the Israelites as a group. They were united at Sinai because the mountain demonstrated for them that the Torah isn’t just for the mighty and lofty and powerful, it is for everybody. And everybody has a personal challenge, to ask, how am I making the Torah mine?

The Ten Commandments are written in the singular. It is as if G-d was speaking to every Jew, tête-à-tête, so that each Israelite could internalize the message and apply the Torah as an individual mandate with each individual a cog in the collective nation of Israel.

The Kli Yakar’s lesson was that the seeking of honor is what causes strife, and that the lesson of humility that was learned merely from looking at the mountain is what brought the Jewish people together.

It was called Sinai, because from there “sinah went down upon the nations” — it doesn’t mean hatred, it just means that there’s a difference between “us” and “them” and that difference is that we received the Torah. Thus, it is important to remember that while “loving one’s fellow Jew” is meant to lead us to love all Jews, we should especially have such feelings towards those who identify with Torah and who struggle to do their best in adhering to it and in their dedication to the Master of the World.

Don’t be judgmental, don’t view others as lesser people or lesser Jews, stop looking over shoulders to see what others think, or even worse, to be nosy in order to bring others down.

Remember that the Torah is the great uniter, and humility is the ingredient that allows for such unifications to take place.