It was the greatest sound and light display in the history of man. Nothing like it had been seen before or since. The people had been preparing for days. They immersed in a mikvah, were physically and spiritually pure. Their clothes were laundered. The Talmud tells us that when Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, the serpent, the symbol of the primordial Evil Inclination, filled her with spiritual impurity. When the Israelites stood at Sinai, that spiritual impurity was removed [Shabbat 146A].
Mount Sinai was enveloped by heavy clouds, thunder, lightning and the blast of the shofar reverberating throughout. There was a huge crowd — 600,000 men along with all their households. What they saw and heard made them tremble. The Ten Commandments were about to be proclaimed by the Almighty.
“I am Hashem, your God. … There shall be no other gods in My presence.” At this point the people implored Moses to take over the speaking of the commandments because they thought they could not survive hearing the voice of God. Moses proceeds to teach them the next eight commandments.
The Midrash says myriads of angels descended and tied two crowns to each and every one of the Jewish people. One corresponding to the people’s pledge, “We will do,” and one corresponding to “We will hear” [Shabbat 88A]. What they had witnessed, said the Mechilta, was not even seen in the greatest visions of Isaiah and Ezekiel.
We can hardly imagine what went through the minds of all who stood at the bottom of that mountain with its ethereal majesty. After all, no other human being had gone through the experience that they had. The two crowns on their heads gave them a feeling of superiority and chosenness.
At this point one would have thought that the Torah would focus on the atmosphere surrounding Mount Sinai and its effect on the approximately three million people who were standing there. But surprisingly, it goes on to give us two new mitzvot of a completely different nature, associated with the Tabernacle’s altar. These two mitzvot appear to be totally misplaced. Logically they should be found in Parshat Terumah (which we will read in a few weeks), instructing us on the building of the Tabernacle and its contents. Why here?
I suggest that they appear right after this magnificent event in order to awaken us out of the euphoria and elation, bringing everyone back down to earth, teaching some fundamental truths regarding our existence. The first mitzvah states, “An altar of earth shall you make for Me…” [Exodus 20:21]. Earth, not gold, silver or inlaid with precious stones. The Midrash Tanchuma [Tzav 14] explains why it was to be made from earth (adamah). The first man was called Adam because he came from the adamah. The Jewish people will bring their sacrifices to the altar made from adamah to atone for the sins committed by their mortal bodies that emerged from the earth and would someday return to it. They were reminded of their mortality.
Shabbat Candles: 4:57 p.m.
Torah: Ex. 18:1-20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6; 9:5-6
Havdalah: 5:59 p.m
The second mitzvah was directed at the Kohanim, the priests. They were instructed to ascend to the altar by means of a ramp and not by steps, “so that your nakedness will not be uncovered upon it” [Ex. 20:23]. Nakedness? Not only was the ordinary Kohen covered in a tunic, but he wore breeches, “to cover the flesh of his nakedness” [Ex. 28:42]. So what is the Torah trying to teach us?
The Midrash Mechilta of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says the Torah is instructing the priestly class that when they are ascending to the altar they should be taking small steps, heel to toe, and not giant steps of hubris, signifying naked power and greatness. And if we show such consideration and humility to a stone ramp, how much more so are we to act accordingly to another fellow human being, “to walk humbly with your God” [Micha 6:8].
So what do we learn from the end of our parsha? The centerpiece of the Torah is the Ten Commandments. Rav Saadia Gaon in the 10th century wrote the Azharot (liturgical hymns for Shavuot) in which he takes all the 613 commandments and places them under the headings of the Ten Commandments. But after all of this pomp and glory, we close with two vital lessons. First, we must always keep in mind the nature of our mortality and how it should affect our conduct. And second, to acquire the most important of all human characteristics, the attribute of humility. One can follow all the commandments but be a “naval birshut haTorah,” a degenerate while remaining within the Torah’s framework [Ramban Vayikra 19:2].
“V’asita hayashar v’hatov b’einai Hashem,” one should constantly strive to do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord [Devarim 6:18]. As Rav said, the commandments were given to Israel solely to refine the human being [Vayikra Rabbah 13:3]. Underlying it all is to be a mensch.
Fred Ehrman has held leadership positions in various Jewish organizations, is chairman of Ohr Torah Stone and is in his fourth cycle of Daf Yomi, the daily study of the Talmud. Contact him at email@example.com.