Yitro: Don’t Even Touch It!

(This blog was first posted on January 31, 2010.)

Mount Sinai, by Elijah Walton, 19th century

“And you will set bounds around the people encircling (Mount Sinai).  Guard yourselves against going up on the mountain, or touching its outskirts.  Everyone who is touching the mountain will surely die.  You will not touch it with a hand, because he (who does) will surely be stoned, or he will surely be thrown off; whether cattle or man, he will not live …”  (Exodus/Shemot 19:12-13)

negoa = touching

Don’t go up Mount Sinai.  Don’t even touch it!  Because God is coming down.

The from God to Moshe in the Torah portion Yitro reminds me of the conversation between Chava (Eve) and the serpent in Genesis 3:3.  Chava tells the serpent: “And from the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden, God said: Do not eat from it and do not touch it, lest you die.”

The verb for “touching” is the same.  Both passages threaten death for disobedience.  And both are interpreted by some commentators as making a “fence” around an injunction in the Torah, in order to avoid transgressing by accident.  But the context makes a big difference.

In Genesis, God tells Adam not to eat the fruit, but says nothing about not touching the tree of knowledge.  Either Adam adds that fence when he passes on the warning to Chava, or Chava adds the fence when she speaks to the serpent.  Either way, the fence is a human invention.

Medieval commentators Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki) and Rambam (Maimonides) wrote that because Chava adds to the prohibition, she feels able to subtract from it as well, and that is why she is bold enough to taste the fruit.  16th-century rabbi Ovadiah Sforno wrote that the serpent pushed her against the tree, to prove that touching it did no harm, and therefore eating from it might not kill her, either.  That, said Sforno, is why one must always distinguish between God’s original prohibitions and the fences humans place around them.

In Exodus, on the other hand, God tells Moshe that the people may not climb Mount Sinai on the day that God will descend, and God also says the people may not touch the mountain until the signal of the sound of a ram’s horn.  Both prohibitions, against climbing and against touching, come from God.  God makes the fence.

19th-century rabbi Samson R. Hirsch wrote that both restrictions (along with being sanctified, washing their clothes, and waiting three days) are given in order to make the people realize that the Torah will fundamentally change in the world.  He interpreted verse 19:13 as saying that any man or animal caught crossing the boundary and touching the mountain must be put to death, by stoning or by being pushed off a height—presumably to increase the drama.

However, I notice that when God does speak on the third day, Mount Sinai is smoking and quaking, crowned by thunder and lightning, and God descends on it with fire.  Clearly it is not physically safe for either a human or an animal to touch this supernatural volcano.

Yet the people encircle the mountain, close enough to hear Moshe’s voice as well as God’s.  The miracle is that as long as they stay on their side of the boundary, they are shaken, but not harmed.

And in this miraculous zone of safety, the people—the Israelites and the eirev rav (the  converts and riff-raff who left Egypt with them)—receive the Ten Statements (Exodus 20:1-14).  Then “… all the people were seeing the voices and the flames and the voice of the shofar and the mountain smoking …” (Exodus 20:15).  They are given ten basic ethical principles, and they experience synesthesia, seeing sounds.  At that moment, they are all transparent to God, like prophets.

Some of my own friends have said they wish they could experience a miracle like seeing God’s voice at Mount Sinai.  Personally, I think an experience like that would be too terrifying to bear.  I’m not in any hurry to get the maximum dose of the ruach ha-kodesh (the wind/spirit of the holy).  I’m grateful that, by the grace of God, my numinous experiences have been only gentle intimations, and the changes in my soul have been gradual.

When Moshe speaks in Deuteronomy to the generations that were not yet born when the people stood at Sinai, he implies that all Jews, maybe even all people, were present when God gave the Torah.  I take this to mean that the Torah is in our bones.  Even without a Sinai-level miracle, if we reflect deeply enough, if we meditate until we touch the divine voice within, we will find the underlying Torah of truth.

What a blessing!

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