Portable Holiness

Holiness derives from encounters with God in Torah study; it is not intrinsic to locations like Mount Sinai.

Commentary on Parashat Yitro, Exodus 18:1 - 20:23

Along the way out of Egypt, Moses meets up with his father-in-law, Yitro, who also brings to him his wife and sons, who have apparently been “back home” in Midian during the liberation events. Yitro sees that Moses is taking on too much as the leader of the people, and gives him advice on how to set up a community organizational structure so that disputes can be resolved quickly and fairly.

In the third month out of Egypt, God calls to Moses and tells him to prepare the people for a great revelation at Mount Sinai. After three days God reveals Godself on the mountain, and with smoke and lightening and shofar blasts the Ten Commandments are spoken, in the sight of all the people at the base of the mountain.

In Focus

“You shall set boundaries around [it] for the people, saying ‘Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge, for the person who touches the mountain will surely die.’ A hand shall not touch it, for he shall either be stoned or thrown down. Whether it is an animal or a person, they shall not live; upon the extended sounding of the shofar, they may go up the mountain” (Exodus 19:12-13).


Before the giving of the Torah, Moses is told by God to instruct the people to prepare themselves, both physically and spiritually. Mount Sinai becomes a kind of restricted holiness zone, and anybody who approaches the sacred mountain prematurely will die — whether for disobedience or because of the “holiness energy” in that area is unclear.

The mountain becomes almost “radioactive” with Godliness, and the people must be exceedingly careful around such great power, just as we would be around an source of powerful electric or heat energy. Still, after the giving of the Torah, this Godly energy will pass, and then the mountain becomes just like any other.


It is hard for those of us in the modern world to conceive of “holiness” being a palpable, almost dangerous presence, as the Bible seems to present it. Commenting on this passage, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen (lived in Russia, died in 1926; his Torah commentary is called Meshech Hochmah) reminds us that extraordinary events do not necessarily make a place intrinsically holy:

The Blessed Holy One desired to root out from among the Israelites any remnant of thoughts of idol-worshipping, and to implant in their hearts the strong faith that nothing in Creation has any special holiness except from the Blessed One, the Source and Wellspring of holiness in the cosmos. This was so that the Israelites would not make a mistake and [think that because] Mount Sinai in itself was holy, that was why the Torah was given on it. [Thus] they were told that immediately after the receiving of the Torah, when the Shechina (divine presence) departed, the mountain would be as any ordinary mountain, with flocks and cattle herding on it. The holiness of the mountain lasted only when the Shechina was on it (Source: Itturei Torah).

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, halachah (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 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.

Perhaps the truly extraordinary event that took place on Mount Sinai was not that the Divine revealed Itself to humans, but that humans received in humble awe the monotheistic teachings of Torah, which would from that moment on challenge the Jewish people to strive for ever greater spiritual heights.

Provided by KOLEL–The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning, which is affiliated with Canada’s Reform movement.

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