Yitro: Don’t Even Touch It!

April 15, 2011 at 4:16 pm | Posted in Yitro | Leave a comment

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

“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!

Yitro: Not in My Face

April 11, 2011 at 5:43 pm | Posted in Yitro | 3 Comments

Moses, frieze on U.S. Supreme Court building, by Adolph Weinman

Terrified by a direct experience of God, the people ask Moses to be their intermediary and tell them God’s orders.  So God gives Moses the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.  Both “Ten” and “Commandments” are designations invented by commentators; the Torah merely introduces the set of fundamental obligations with:

And God spoke all these words, saying—  (Exodus/Shemot 20:1)

The next sentence is:

I am God, your God who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves.  (Exodus 20:2)

Some commentators count this as the first commandment, and Exodus 20:3-6 as the second commandment, prohibiting other gods and idols.  But the reminder that the God of Israel delivered the people from slavery in Egypt does not sound like a commandment to me.  I agree with commentators who count Exodus 20:3, prohibiting other gods, as the first commandment, and Exodus 20:4-6, prohibiting physical objects as idols, as the second commandment.

The verse prohibiting other gods reads:

You must have no elohim acheirim al panai.  (Exodus/Shemot 20:3)

elohim acheirim (אֱלֺהִים אֲחֵרִים) = other gods; gods of others.

al (עַל) = on, upon, over, above; besides, in addition to; over against; concerning; because of.  (The most common meaning of al is “on: or ”over”, but verse 5 explains that you must not worship anything else but God—so verse 3 cannot mean that it’s okay to serve other gods as long as they are below God. )

panai (פָּנָי) = my face, my presence, my surface, my visible side, my identity.

Here are five literal translations of this ambiguous commandment:

      You must not have other gods besides My presence.

      You must not have gods of others in addition to My presence.

      You must not have gods of others in addition to My visible side.

      You must not have other gods over against Me.

      You must not have other gods in My face.

First let’s look at the difference between “other gods” and “gods of others”, two phrases that are identical in Biblical Hebrew.  If the Israelites can’t have “other gods”, they are forbidden to worship not only the gods of others, but also any gods they happen to think of or notice on their own.  Therefore they must not worship any manifestations of God, such as angels or the stars or nature.  Modern commentary sometimes adds that we must not make a god out of wealth, or having a perfect body, or any other value exalted by our culture.  We may only have one God.

On the other hand, if the Israelites can’t have “gods of others”, the focus turns to the kind of gods worshiped by Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and Canaanites.  These peoples made idols in an effort to entice gods to come down out of the heavens or up from under the earth and inhabit their statues, the way humans inhabit their bodies.  A god living in a statue is easier to communicate with, and easier to appease and honor and butter up so it will act for your benefit.

Throughout the Torah, God may appear as a humanoid angel or as fire or a cloud, but what we see is God’s choice of manifestation, not the work of our own hands.  The vision may disappear at any moment; it is not solid; it cannot be set on a table or paraded through town.  Therefore God is not like the gods of others.

Reading elohim acheirim as “gods of others” leads right into the next three verses in this week’s Torah portion:

Do not make yourself a carved idol or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or of what is in the land below, or of what is in the water beneath the land.  Do not prostrate to them and do not serve them.  Because I am God, your god, a jealous god, calling to account the wrongdoing of fathers upon children over the third and fourth (generations), for my enemies; but doing kindness to the thousandth (generation) for those who love me and who observe my commandments.  (Exodus 20:4-6)

This continuity supports the theory that Exodus 20:3 and Exodus 20:4-6 are one “commandment”, but it makes the list of what the people must do and not do add up to nine instead of ten.

The ambiguity is not over.  What about the last two words of Exodus 20:3, al panai?

If the phrase means “over against Me”, or even “in My face”, it is a warning that God would be offended if you worshiped any other gods.  After all, God is the one who rescued you from slavery (Exodus 20:2).  And God is a “jealous” god, i.e. passionately exclusive (Exodus 20:5).

However, if al-panai is translated as “in addition to My presence” or “besides My presence”, it means simply that the Israelites must worship and serve only the one god.  Some commentators who have translated the word panai as “My presence” have interpreted it as meaning that God is present everywhere and at all times, so don’t think you can get away with having another god without the One God noticing.

But since the next verse in Exodus begins “Do not make yourself a carved idol”, I think panai means both “My presence” and “My visible surface”.  The Torah contrasts the carved idols that are supposedly inhabited by the gods of others with the presence of the God of the Israelites, which is sometimes visible as a vision of an angel or a fire, and sometimes invisible, as when God speaks from the empty space above the cherubim in the Holy of Holies.

Similarly, sometimes the God of the Torah is audible to everyone, as a sound like thunder or the blowing of rams’ horns.  And sometimes God is audible only to one person, who “hears” the words that God speaks inside him or her.


The commandment in Exodus 20:3 not only orders us to refrain from serving other gods, but also asks us to serve our God.  How do we do that?

How can we honor the face of God, when God cannot be contained in a statue, a synagogue, a church, a mosque, or even the Holy of Holies?  What can we do when God makes its presence known unpredictably, when you never know where, when, or who will become aware of God for a moment?

And how can we serve our elusive God when even the Ten Commandments give us only a general idea of what we are supposed to do?  And when half of the more specific laws in the Torah were dropped as inapplicable more than 1,500 years ago in the Talmud?

Does anyone today have the authority to tell us how to serve God?  What actions and attitudes can we take that count as service?

I’m working on some answers to those questions.  It will take me the rest of my life.

(An earlier version of this blog was posted on January 16, 2011.)


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