Parashat Yitro: What is God offering us?

The entire nation, women and men, adults and children, underwent the most intense experience a person could have.

February 16, 2017 14:21
3 minute read.
Bahad 1

Bahad 1, the IDF’s officers training academy near Mitzpe Ramon. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE: LIOR MOR VIA WIKIPEDIA)


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We’ve reached the central point, the pinnacle of the story. This week, we read the main story that is the focus of the Torah and of the Jewish nation’s life throughout the generations – the revelation at Mount Sinai.

The Torah describes the event itself in great detail.

It was so magnificent and captivating that no human could calmly observe it. It was a public revelation, unprecedented and one of a kind in human history.

The entire nation, women and men, adults and children, underwent the most intense experience a person could have. They stood at the foot of Mount Sinai and heard God say to them, “I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

This transcendent event did not happen suddenly.

It required spiritual preparation of three days, during which the nation worked on purifying itself.

But before that, a different amazing event took place: God offered the “goods” to the nation and gave it the option of choosing or rejecting it. God was not interested in coercion but, rather, in a full partnership, a mutual process of leading the entire world toward a complete tikkun, or repair. For a partnership to work, both sides have to desire it.

Let us pay attention to what God said to Moses: “So shall you say to the House of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: ... if you obey Me and keep My covenant... And you shall be to Me a kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:3-6).

This proposal demands an explanation. What is a “kingdom of kohanim” and how is this connected to the parallel term “a holy nation”? The great Jewish thinker of the Middle Ages, the Rambam (Maimonides), explained these terms beautifully.

A kohen, says the Rambam, is a term that exists in every social group. A person we call a “kohen” has unique qualities that lead the rest of the group to look at him as a role model who actualizes their hidden aspirations.

Even modern societies have “kohanim” – though they are not defined as such – who act as role models of success and self-actualization. We might look at someone who started his own successful company and made a fortune using his talents, and aspire to be like him.

Someone else might look at an intellectual as someone who has reached a level worthy of striving for.

At the revelation at Sinai, the entire people of Israel became a nation of kohanim, meaning that it is meant to serve as a role model of a nation that conducts its life in an exemplary fashion, a nation that other nations will look toward and say to themselves “This is how we want to be.”

And how can the people of Israel become a “kingdom of kohanim”? If it takes upon itself the trait of a “holy nation.”

Holiness is not abstinence from life; it is not sitting alone on the top of a mountain. Holiness is the ability to adopt a life that is not based on petty interests of petty people, but, rather, is based on values of truth and justice, on a profound perspective on the purpose of life, on ceaseless contemplation of the significance of human existence. This leads to a national life that can serve as a role model to others, in this case to other nations.

The people of Israel heard this proposal and decided to answer in the affirmative: “All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!” Accepting the Torah, more than a one-time event, was accepting the role for generations of Jews to feel obligated to be different, to conduct themselves sacredly, to see reality from a perspective of truth and justice and not one of interests based on needs alone.

Indeed, the people of Israel responded to the proposal and took upon itself this lofty role. But this obligation is ultimately a personal one. Each and every one of us must see himself or herself as someone who stood at the foot of the mountain and was faced with the following proposal: “Do you see yourself becoming a ‘kohen’ of humanity? Do you have the inner desire to be holy?” This is the proposal. The answer given by so many generations, with great determination, has been: “All that the Lord has spoken, we shall do!” We join the response as well. “All that the Lord has spoken, we shall do.”

■ The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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