We are now in the midst of our Sefirat Ha’omer “count-up” as we advance toward Shavuot, the celebration of receiving the Torah upon Mount Sinai.
That was a truly momentous event in the annals of human history, as Divine law was transmitted from heaven to earth amid thunder, lightning and blasts of the shofar. The birds stopped flying and the waves stopped waving as the universe – along with the Jewish people – stopped in its tracks and stood in awe as the Ten Commandments and their adjoining mitzvot were bestowed upon mortal man.
Yet something seems strange here. We Jews are a wandering people with terminal wanderlust, and we travel the length and breadth of the planet, particularly to visit places of special interest to us. Wherever we once lived, where once there stood a long-gone synagogue or yeshiva – from Salonika to Shanghai – we want to go there.
So why is it, out of all these innumerable locales of interest, we do not make pilgrimages to Mount Sinai?! Surely, that should be at the top of our must-do lists! And yet, so devoid of desire are we to see this place, we don’t even know for sure – nor, seemingly, do we care – where it is located.
Jewish archaeologists long ago dismissed Jabal Musa as the authentic location, and you won’t see any guided tours to this mountain in your travel guides. Unlike our reverence for Mount Moriah, where the Temple stood, we retain no affinity whatsoever for Mount Sinai. How can we explain this?
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik was once asked this question, and he – like the good Jew that he was – answered by asking another question. “Why is it,” he pondered, “that the blessings we recite after eating fruit and bread are so radically different?”
Fruit is a modern-day miracle, akin to the manna that fell from heaven. It is wonderfully colorful, nutritious, delicious and effortlessly accessible; it literally grows on trees! It is a gift from God that we hardly have to work for; we simply reach up and pluck it. And yet, the blessing we recite after eating fruit is extremely brief, just a mere sentence or two.
Bread, on the other hand, requires a huge amount of work by human hands. God provides the seeds, to be sure, yet it is we who must plant, sow, reap, sift, bake and more to produce the finished product (there are 10 steps listed by the rabbis, equal to the number of words in the Hamotzi blessing). Nevertheless, the blessing after eating bread – Birkat Hamazon – is extremely long and poetic. Filled with praise for God, it is a kind of a walk through Jewish history, referencing the Exodus, Jerusalem, Israel, brit mila and a host of other topics.
Soloveitchik found this very puzzling. “I would have thought,” he said, “that it would be quite the opposite! That we would wax poetic over fruit, which comes directly from God, and much less so for bread, which necessitates so much human effort.”
But then the rabbi drew a conclusion that is a major tenet of Jewish thought: the greatest moments in life, those that have the deepest meaning, are the moments when man and God work in tandem, when they create a partnership in order to achieve an elevated purpose.
It is precisely because human beings are so involved in taking the wheat which God provides and converting it into bread that it invokes the greatest blessing.
And so it is with the aforementioned two mountains. Mount Sinai was a unique event, but it was a “solo performance”; it was God’s show and God’s alone. The Jewish people, other than Moses, were expressly warned to stay away from the mount, to keep their distance. As great as the revelation was, when it was over, it was over forever. The mountain returned to a hill of dirt; no holiness whatsoever remained. We moved on and never looked back.
Mount Moriah, however, was different. There, Abraham took Isaac to the Akeda, where the two of them prepared to do whatever God commanded – even to the point of death – so as to comply with the Divine decree. The phrase repeated in the biblical passage – “and the two of them walked together” – refers not only to father and son, but also to man and God. Where the two interact and intertwine, kedusha – holiness – exists forever. And so, that place became the natural site for the Temple, where man and God would meet on a daily basis, and it would retain eternal holiness.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great leader of prewar German Jewry, makes a stunning observation. The default shape of the universe, he says, is round. Natural phenomena take on a round shape: planets are round, most fruit is round, when rain strikes the ground or dust swirls in the breeze it does so in a round form.
The default shape of Judaism, however, is not round, but square. Just think of all the objects in our culture that have a square shape: tefillin, a sukkah, a huppah, matzah, the arks in our synagogues, a mezuzah parchment; even the way we marched in the desert from Egypt to Israel was in a square formation.
While round items in nature can come from God alone, something square can exist only when man is involved in the process. Square, in short, is a signature that says, “Man was here.” God decrees, man designs.
ISRAEL IS unique in that it is the only country in the world where every facet of life – from our calendar to our street names to our agriculture, even to the clothes we wear and the songs we sing – can represent a union of the secular and the spiritual, a meeting of God and man. And that is why Israel is the only country on earth where every centimeter has eternal holiness.
And if there is one domain in which this holiness reaches its zenith, it is in the Israeli army. The willingness to put one’s very life on the line for Israel’s survival represents the ultimate expression of a Jew’s devotion to his God. Every soldier’s uniform is the garb of the high priest; every soldier’s beret is a crown of glory; every soldier who gives up his or her life in defense of the state is Rabbi Akiva personified. They look like children – are children! – but then, so were the cherubim that sat upon the cover of the Holy Ark of the Covenant.
Those golden children also had the wings of angels; our soldiers are the human angels who fly closest to God. They are the surest guarantee that we will go on eternally in our strong and beautiful country.
The author is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana ([email protected]) and the father of Sgt. Ari Weiss, who fell in battle against Hamas terrorists in Nablus in September 2002.