“Don’t Ascend Sinai”
“The shofar waxed exceedingly”
“The mountain quaked exceedingly”
What is the singular message?
God wished to benefit mankind by creating an unparalleled proof of Divine revelation and religious instruction. But a physical manifestation, that God is not physical? How is this accomplished? It seems impossible.
God wishes not to lead any human astray. Life is physical, but God is not. Therefore, God’s instruction must take on some tangible form so that man perceives it. Herein lies the risk.
To express that He is unknowable, God told Moses, “Go down and warn the nation, lest they break forth to God to see, and a multitude will be killed.” (Exod. 19:21) Human nature teaches us that all is viewable. We heretically assume this in connection with God as well. However, God is not created, and not physical. He therefore is imperceptible to our senses. And if a person expressed a desire to see God, he would be killed, as were those 57,000 Jews who looked into the Ark upon its return from the Philistines. The Jews sinned again and created the Golden Calf, for this very fault: “the man Moses is gone”. They said the “man” Moses. Of course he is a man! But this verse comes to teach us: it expresses their attachment to a leader who is physical, i.e., a “man”. Humans seek tangibility. But this psychological and infantile need can and must be matured, and abandoned.
At Sinai too, God knew very well that the Jews would yearn for tangibility in His revelation. To avert this catastrophe where the nation might project physical characteristics onto God, He included a number of features in Revelation at Sinai. Foremost was the command to rail-off the mountain. This controls man’s physical attempt to “approach” God. God also created a sound of a shofar that was “exceedingly” great. Why shofar, and why exceedingly?
A Rabbi once taught that man cannot describe God’s true greatness. On the one hand, we require expression; on the other, we are ignorant of God’s nature. For this reason, we follow the praises of only the wisest men like Moses and King David. But we learn that King David concluded his Psalms with no words, only with musical sounds. A musical sound bereft of words is King David’s precise lesson: we have no words! A brilliant observation and insight by this Rabbi. Man must not be deluded that he possesses any truth about God’s nature “For man cannot know Me while alive” was stated by God to Moses. How much more so in regards to us?
For this reason, we can answer why God included the shofar. He wished to express this idea of an indescribable event now occurring. The fact that the shofar waxed “exceedingly” means “without description”. When we cannot describe a phenomenon, we say it was “so” whatever. Here too, the shofar was incomprehensibly loud. The mountain too “quaked exceedingly”. God wished that our two major senses of vision and hearing were overwhelmed. This overwhelming sensation will contribute to our admission that we cannot fathom God, who is performing this event. So the rail prevented physical attempts to see God, while the shofar and quaking addressed man’s thoughts. Both of man’s components were addressed: his physical and his mental.
Forty years later when entering Israel, Moses reminds the Jews, “You saw no form at Sinai, only a sound.” (Deut. 4:12) Moses reiterates this important lesson: man cannot know God. Maimonides too stresses the essential nature of this lesson by incorporating this concept into his 13 Principles: “God is not a body, and has no strength in the body, and has no shape or image or relationship to a body or parts thereof.”
With an appreciation of the vitality of this lesson, how can we apply this today?
We must denounce the concept that “we have a piece of God in us”. “Parts” of God suggests physicality, which God is not. God punished such believers with death. The reason being, that if our concept of God is flawed, our lives have no meaning, and death follows. This thinking is heresy.
We must also not place notes in the Western Wall, since God is no “closer” to us there…as this week’s Parsha concludes: “In every place I cause my name to me mentioned (the many Temple locations) I will come to you and bless you.” God is not limited to any given location, but recognizes our prayers from any place. Placing notes into the Western Wall assumes physicality as well.
We must not assume God has needs, is lonely, or possesses any other human quality, as all these suggest physical or psychological characteristics – inapplicable to God.
If we choose to, we can simply parrot the nonsense so pervasive in our communities that spans the foolish, to the heretical, and suffer the same fate of the Gold Calf worshippers, and the Jews who sought to “see” God in the Ark. But if we follow God’s prescription, engaging in patient Torah study, and remain true to what He wrote, we will remove all false ideas, and enjoy the consistent and reasonable nature of all God’s Torah lessons.