The Israeli Har Sinai

There is a distinctly human tone to Israeli stones as opposed to the desert ‘luchot'

‘HAVING CHOSEN God, the Torah is God’s response to us.’ Pictured: The Yanov Torah, rescued from the Holocaust. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘HAVING CHOSEN God, the Torah is God’s response to us.’ Pictured: The Yanov Torah, rescued from the Holocaust.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah is eternal and exists outside of time and outside of space. For this reason, it was delivered in a barren desert landscape beyond human civilization. Similarly, its date of delivery is concealed – at least by the Torah itself. The word of God is incumbent upon Jews regardless of where we live or when we live. The delivery of His will is not geo-tagged nor is the event clearly pinned to a particular date.
Even though God’s autonomous word exists outside of “place,” it does resonate differently in His land. For this reason, it was crucial to re-enact the epic Sinai experience upon arrival in Israel. Soon after entering the land, the Jews re-staged Sinai upon the two northern mountains of Gerizim and Eival. Settling Israel without recreating Har Sinai and reinforcing its fundamentals is inconceivable. Our warrant to this land is our embrace of God’s will and the agenda of broadcasting His spirit from the land of Israel. Upon first entering our home, the warrant for our residence must be reaffirmed and an “Israeli” Har Sinai must be staged.
However, the Israeli Har Sinai was dramatically different from the earlier desert ceremony. At Har Sinai, the Jews were completely passive – attentively listening and enthusiastically embracing, but nonetheless completely reactive. The pyrotechnics at Sinai were so fearsome that, by some accounts, the Jews even fled the scene, only to be forcibly retrieved by Moshe. On that desert morning, only one voice was to be heard and it emanated from heaven, descending upon mankind.
By contrast, at the Israeli Har Sinai, Torah is distilled and presented by a human audience: six tribes ascended one mountain while the remaining population ascended the second cliff. A faction of Levites stood in the valley between the two cliffs, announcing each commandment. Listening to these avowals, the respective groups upon the highlands responded by declaring “Amen.”
Further accentuating the human role, the Israeli version of the luchot – the Torah inscribed on two large slabs of stone – were inscribed by humans and not by the divine hand. Whether a selection of mitzvot were engraved, entire Torah sections, or possibly even the entire Torah, there is a distinctly human tone to Israeli stones as opposed to the desert luchot. Though the Torah predates time, it must be applied by humans to daily life and to a sometimes unaccommodating world.
Nowhere is this application more challenging and all-inclusive than in the land of Israel. When directing the broad affairs of state, it is difficult to shrink Torah to the protective horizons of the beit midrash or study halls. Torah’s spirit and law must be infused in every feature of human and national experience. This expansive application of Torah – amplified in Israel – was symbolized at these two mountains by empowering human beings as anchors and authors.
Additionally, the Israeli Har Sinai concluded with a general appeal to uphold the “entirety” of Torah: arur asher lo yakim et divrei Hatorah hazot (cursed is the one who doesn’t keep the words of this Torah). This general mandate – excluded from the original Har Sinai – reminded us that upon entering Israel, we now possessed lateral responsibility for other Jews. The mandate of kol yisrael areivim zeh lazeh (all Jews are responsible for each other) only began when we entered the land and began forging a community. Unquestionably, lateral accountability for every Jew exists outside of Israel, but it is primarily realized on an individual level, promoting individual religious experience for other Jews. Life in Israel demands a more communal areivut– concerning the religious and moral spirit of cities, communities and society at large. Sinai in Israel took on an added dimension; human authorship implied both more complex as well as more “extended” human application.
A SECOND difference between the original Sinai and the Israeli version surrounded the paint or plaster applied to the stones before the mitzvot were engraved. The desert luchot were bare and unadorned, reflecting the meager nature of life in the desert. Under these scant but supernatural conditions, Torah commitment is relatively straightforward. However, as the desert migrants transitioned into comfortable homeowners, would their religious devotion waver? Can Torah be engraved upon appealing and decorated stones in the same manner that it can be sketched upon bare desert tablets? As our State of Israel experiences almost dizzying material growth, we are challenged to maintain our idealism, in general, and our religious spirit in particular.
One final differentiating “feature” of the Israeli Har Sinai is the selection of two mountains rather than one. As the Jews stood between the two mountains embracing Torah, they couldn’t help but remember their ancestor, Avraham, passing between two “animal flanks” at the brit bein habetarim (the covenant between the animal rounds). Stationed between two mountain cliffs, the Jewish imagination returned to the genesis of Jewish history. Receiving the Torah at Sinai and entering Israel cannot be severed from earlier historical events.
Though Abraham didn’t receive the actual Torah, he lived its principles, while struggling to establish our presence in Israel. Oddly, this Sinai reenactment occurred to the North (probably in the general vicinity of Shechem) at a considerable distance from Yerushalayim. By passing through a northern corridor, the Jews were also re-enacting Avraham’s original entry to Israel – his journey through northern Israel in a southerly direction. The powerful and formative events at Har Sinai must be framed as a culmination of the great journey launched with great devotion hundreds of years earlier. As we advance our modern State, we must always sense not just our religious warrant but the historical legacy of our presence. This was a land awarded to our ancestors who labored against great resistance to gain a footing in a contested land. We have the great merit to realize their dreams and embody their prophecies and visions.
The reenactment of Sinai upon our initial entry into Israel reasserted Torah as our warrant for residence in Israel. Unlike Har Sinai, however, the Israeli version empowered humans, thereby showcasing the challenges awaiting life in Israel as Torah is applied to every element of human experience. Secondly, the bare tablets were replaced with polished stone to underscore the challenge of maintaining devotion and discipline even as material wealth accumulates. Finally, two mountains in the North were selected to reenact the original northern arrival of Avraham. Our warrant for Israel is the Torah delivered at Sinai, but also the devotion of our ancestors narrated in the book of Genesis.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a masters degree in English literature from the City University of New York.