Parshat Yithro: Up, down and onward

“The Lord descended on Mount Sinai...and Moses went up... And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down...’” (Exodus 19:21)

Torah reading 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
Torah reading 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)
T he verses immediately preceding the Decalogue Revelation at Sinai are curious, to say the least. God and Moses enter into a dialogue that appears to be a discussion between two deaf individuals, as it were: “The Lord summoned Moses to the mountain peak, and Moses went up. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and bear testimony to the people that they must not break the boundary toward God to see Him…’ [that is, the people may not go up close to God]. [Even] the priests, who [usually] come near to the Lord, must separate themselves lest the Lord wreak destruction amongst them. “And Moses said to the Lord, ‘The people cannot go up to Mount Sinai; You [God] bore testimony against them, making the mountain off limits… And the Lord said [to Moses], ‘Go down. You can then [later] come [back] up along with Aaron [see Exodus 24:12, after the Decalogue is given to the nation].… And Moses went down to the nation” (Exodus 19:20-25).
How can we understand such repetitious dialogue, with God telling Moses to come up in order to hear that he must go down, Moses arguing that the people cannot come up, God once again telling Moses to go down, and Moses finally going down? And why is this the most fitting introduction to the Decalogue Revelation? I would suggest that this dialogue is setting the stage for the essential purpose of Torah; even more, it is expressing the unique message of Torah, that which distinguishes Judaism from most other religious ideologies and even that which distinguishes Jewish philosophy from the Neo-Platonism of much of Western thought. My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B.
Soloveitchik, in his magnum opus Ish Hahalacha (Halachic Man), distinguishes among three prototypical intellectual leaders: Scientific Man (ish hada’at), for whom the only universe is the observable material world in which he finds himself; Religious Man (ish hadat), who escapes from this material world of transience and illusion, and whose real universe is the spiritual domain of the Divine; and Halachic Man (ish hahalacha), who sees the material world as his universe of dialogue and concern, but who is dissatisfied with the world as it is, who brings to it an eternal and transcendent Torah Guide that must shape and perfect it in accord with the supernal Divine will. The ish hahalacha provides the most acceptable perspective, which expresses the mission of Israel and the purpose of Torah: to perfect the world in the Kingship of the Divine.
Let us now return to the dialogue between God and Moses. God is about to provide Israel (and the world) with His Revelation. Moses, initially the prototypical “Religious Man,” understands that in order to receive the Divine Revelation, one must come close to the Divine; one must divest oneself as much as possible from one’s physical and material external trappings. One must, at least, climb to the top of the mountain.
“No,” says God, “this Revelation is meant for the material world. This Revelation is not limited to the intellectual and mystical elite; in this Revelation, now to all of Israel and eventually to the entire world [see Al ken nekaveh, the second paragraph of the Aleinu prayer], the people are not expected to go up to God; in this Revelation, God and His Torah will come down to the people – and hopefully suffuse, reshape and perfect the entire material world.”
Moses doesn’t quite understand. He is perplexed by the fact that the people have been forbidden to climb to the top of the mountain to receive the Revelation. But God patiently explains that just as He (as it were) “descended upon Mount Sinai,” so must Moses descend to the bottom of the mountain. And so the dialogue ends, “And Moses descended to the nation and spoke unto them” (Ex. 19:25).
The Talmud records that when Moses later ascends heavenward to receive the entire Revelation of the 613 Commandments (Exodus 24:12), the angels are loath to release their precious treasure to a mortal human being. God instructs Moses to explain to them that they were never enslaved in Egypt, that they have no desire for adultery, that they have no parents whom they must honor. Our sages tell us that: “From the day that the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, blessed is He, has nothing in His world, except for the four cubits of Halacha [Jewish law] meaning that God finds a dwelling place in each person’s personal four cubits: The laws of kashrut bring God into the kitchen and dining room; the laws of family purity bring God into the bedroom; the laws of business bring God into the workplace; and the laws of interpersonal relationships bring God into all political forums. The Torah is meant to perfect and sanctify every aspect of the material world.
Shabbat shalom
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs and chief rabbi of Efrat.