By Rabbi Robert Freedman
The account in Exodus of the revelation at Sinai emphasizes physical boundaries. “YHVH said to Moses, ‘I will come to you in a thick cloud.’” (Exodus 19:9). “You shall set bounds for the people round about, saying, ‘Beware of going up the mountain or touching the border of it. Whoever touches the mountain will be put to death.’” (19:12) “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down, warn the people not to break through to the Lord to gaze, lest many of them perish.’” (19:21)
These boundaries are similar to those set up by the priesthood following the rebellion of Korah and the destruction of his followers. (Numbers 17:27-18:7) They kept all but the ordained priests from coming close to the holiest part of the sanctuary and prevented any non-anointed person from performing the rites of the temple cult. There, as here, the penalty for crossing the boundary was death. At the same time, the network of priests and boundaries enabled the people to bring their prescribed offerings to the sanctuary without fear that they would be destroyed by the power of the ark.
If the purpose of the revelatory event at Sinai was to sanctify the Israelites by having them experience first-hand the majesty and mystery of God, was God’s employment of strict boundaries counter-productive? Not if we assume that its intent was, and is, to demonstrate that in the physical realm divine and human are, and must be maintained, separate.
Both human and Divine are needed. Human arms, hands, and voices do God’s work in the world. They soothe, give and receive, administer, teach and counsel. Human acts, as it were, channel the flow of divine beneficence into the finite. It is also true that humans perform many grievous and horrible acts that cannot be called godly. Yet, in all save the most exceptional cases, it is humans who till the soil to grow our food, who provide medicines to heal us, who give us comfort when we are suffering, who hand us our paychecks, who assemble our seemingly magical communication devices, and on and on.
Looked at in this light, the boundary so strictly established and enforced at the site of ultimate revelation was not a grim prohibition but a teaching tool, an inherent part of the event. God issued the Ten Commandments as a framework to balance the frothy effects of being loosed from the narrow place of Mitzrayim. The ultimate goal of the exodus was freedom for the Israelites, freedom to be fully human partners with God in the physical work of the finite world. Such freedom can exist only within the bounds of a framework. The geographical boundary that God directed to be placed around the mountain is a metaphor for the boundary that defines the covenant between human and God and the separate responsibilities of each.
At the same time we recognize that the Sinai boundary was only a physical block. In the emotional and intellectual realms it was permeable. The Torah recounts that when the people saw the thunder, lightning and smoke on the mountain they were afraid and withdrew (20:15), and the Midrash adds that all the revelations of the prophets to come were conveyed at that moment. (Tanhuma [Warsaw] Yitro, 11) So it remains for us today. We are, as it were, God’s agents in the world, but the impulse for our actions is the echo of Sinai.
Rabbi Bob Freedman was ordained at AJR in 2000. He presently serves as cantor of Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia.