Parashat Yitro

Portable Holiness

God was careful to teach the Israelites that holiness derives from encounters with God in Torah study; it is not intrinsic to locations like Mt. Sinai.

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The Meshech Hochmah's emphasis is on the last part of our verse, where Moses is told that the flocks and herds will return to graze there just as they would on any other mountain; this reading implies that this is quite deliberate on God's part, to educate the Israelites, who had just left a society that worshipped animals, people, places, the sun and the moon. According to the Meshech Hochmah, God was worried, as it were, that the Israelites would confuse cause with effect; they would think that it was only on this special mountain that the Torah could be given, and thus they might end up revering the mountain as much as the Torah!

Rather, the mountain is special only when it becomes a place where the Divine and human beings reach out to each other; even if Sinai is a preeminent symbol of encountering the Divine in our tradition, it is only because it is the preeminent symbol of Torah, which in itself is a "meeting place" for God and people.

Torah means more than just the five books of Moses; Torah in its broadest sense is striving and struggling after God in the pages of our sacred texts, which include Bible, Talmud, Midrash, philosophy, halakhah (Jewish law), poetry, songs, prayers, and more. Torah includes the commentaries and poetry being written today--if a text causes you to stop, slow down, think about your life in a new way, inspires you to deepen your Jewish commitments, connects you to Jewish history and community, and gives you a nudge towards more Godly Jewish living, I'd call that Torah. Torah, to me, is a text valued not only by its antiquity or its authority, but also by the effect it produces in a person's soul.

Torah is portable, lives in our communities, and serves as the link between generations; perhaps that's why the ancient rabbis saw Torah study, rather than sacred mountains, as the place where Jews go to meet the Holy One. Consider the following passage from the Talmud:

Rabbi Halafta, of K'far Hananiah, taught: When ten persons sit together and study Torah, the Shechina hovers over them, as it is written: "God is present in the divine assembly." (Psalms 82:1)

Where do we learn that this also applies to five? . . . [prooftexts are then brought to demonstrate that the Shechina is present for five, three, and two people learning Torah.]

From where do we learn that this applies to even one person? From the verse: "In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned, I will come to you and bless you." (Exodus 20:24) (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Forebears, 3:7)

So perhaps we can take the insight of the Meshech Hochma one step further--not only did the temporary specialness of Mount Sinai come from the Holy One, rather than from some intrinsic qualities of the mountain, but even the holiness that flowed from God did so because it was at that place the Israelites learned Torah for the first time. Safe from the oppressive Egyptian army, they were able to open up their hearts to Torah, to the Godly way of living, to the idea that human life is more than mere material existence.

In that place, at that moment, because of their kavvanah [spiritual intentionality], the people were able to encounter the Divine. This is not to say that we can't experience awe at the beauty of Creation on a mountaintop--of course we do and should!--but that Jewish spirituality is portable, depending much more on the orientation of one's heart than the location of one's feet.

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Rabbi Neal J. Loevinger

Rabbi Neal Joseph Loevinger is currently the rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Poughkeepsie, NY. A former student at Kolel, he served as Kolel's Director of Outreach from late 1999-2001. He was ordained in the first graduating class of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of the University of Judaism, and holds a Master's of Environmental Studies from York University in Toronto.