“I’ll Take One Sinai to Go, Please”
After the dust of the monumental event at Har Sinai had finally settled, and before parshat Mishpatim’s massive compendium of halakhot, God relays four seemingly arbitrary commands to Bnei Yisrael. What do they mean and why are they here?
To begin, we must appreciate that this section is separated by a parsha stumah: it is separated from the previous episode in ‘narrative’ but not in context. So, we can understand that the following verses will address a topic related to the revelation at Har Sinai yet separate from that particular narrative.
“And God said to Moshe: this is what you must say to Bnei Yisrael: you say that I spoke with you from the Heavens.” (20; 19)
The introduction to the four verses (and therefore the focus for the entire section’s lesson) is that Bnei Yisrael must understand a truth: at Har Sinai, they saw that God spoke to them from the heavens. In other words, they ‘saw’, personally witnessed and understood, that God, Who is ‘in the heavens’, above them, out of their realm, nonetheless ‘spoke to them’ in their context, in their world; He, Himself, came down from Heaven to relate to them. First and foremost, God says, they must be aware that He can and did create a personal connection and relationship from the heavens to them on earth. Therefore, the following four verses of command will relate somehow to this unique, God-initiated and established relationship that He has specifically created for Bnei Yisrael.
‘Don’t make [anything] with Me; don’t make for yourselves gods of silver and gold’. (20)
Both clauses of this verse command Bnei Yisrael not to establish anything in addition to God, whether to share the heavens with Him (‘with Me’) or to share the earth with them (‘[do not] make for yourselves gods of silver and gold’). In looking to appreciate and understand this Divinely established relationship that God has just described, Bnei Yisrael must not create anything ‘with God’ to more fully appreciate ‘their partner’ in heaven. Like being unable to define an equation’s variable, for example, one may give it a number to help solidify its identity, God says that although Bnei Yisraelmight yearn for this ‘assisting’, solidifying entity, He must nonetheless ‘remain alone’. Similarly, they must not create something down below, with them, to assist in crystallizing their understanding of this relationship and its partner. They must understand that God, Himself, will come down to them in their lives – just as He did at Har Sinai – without their needing to create a tangible, external representation of Him in either realm therein obscuring the purity of this Divinely driven connection.
“Make an altar of earth for Me, and sacrifice upon it your Olot and your Shelamim, your sheep and your cattle; every of these places I will announce My name and I will come to you and bless you.” (21)
So, what is their role in this partnership? To create a mizbeach ‘for Him’, a symbol of their desire to accept this relationship from Him; they are also commanded to bring korbanot upon it as the further demonstration of their ‘giving of themselves’, expressing their desire for God and the relationship He, personally, has established with them. However, this mizbeach is specifically to be made of earth; it is only of their natural world, without addition of an external material, which they need to use. This instruction follows the theme of the previous verse, where they were commanded to keep the relationship with God totally pure, consisting only of God and His desire to be with them. They must express within this pure system a puredemonstration of their desire for and appreciation of this newly offered relationship. God, Himself, makes the connection; they only need to accept it (just like at Har Sinai).
The second clause follows the theme of the relationship’s God-sided character. Even though it is the person who has set up the mizbeach to God, in ‘every of the places’ – in other words, in all of these type of places, i.e. the mizbechot previously mentioned – it will nonetheless be God Who will be causing ‘His name be mentioned’, in essence defining the significance of the mizbeach’s representative meaning. We can build them, but God breathes life into them – we may set up the line, but He makes the call (once again like Har Sinai, where it was made into a ‘Mountain of God’ only because of His presence there). And then it will be only He who will ‘come to you and bless you’ – personally, no intermediary, no obscurity.
“And if you make an altar of stone, don’t build them from hewn stone; because the waving of your sword over it desecrates it” (22)
If there is a wish, however, on their part to express a more solid, stronger representation of their desire for God’s connection with them, then the nation can do so with a stone mizbeach. However, it must not be made of hewn stone, because waving the sword over the stones will desecrate it. On the one hand, Bnei Yisrael want to more fully express their acceptance of the relationship from God; on the other hand, there is still the prohibition of introducing anything not-God into it (therefore defeating the whole idea behind the acceptance of the purely God-initiated and established relationship). Notice, however, that it is not the ‘cutting’ of the stone by the blade that is problematic, but rather merely its ‘waving’, i.e. thewielding of the blade. Because, the action of wielding a blade is the expression of man’s dominance or power over something or someone (in this case, shaping the stone to his will) and, if he employs this action while forming the mizbeach which is to represent his acceptance and understanding of the purely God initiated and created relationship, then he is ‘desecrating’ this idea by introducing his own will, i.e. controlling or determining a facet of that which is God’s alone. Even man’s activity in this relationship must be passively implemented (much like the prohibited crossing of ‘the line’ on the mountain during the revelation at Har Sinai).
“And don’t ascend steps upon this altar so that you do not reveal your nakedness upon it” (23)
This is not another instruction for building, because it says ‘ascend’ i.e. an action; so where the previous two verses described the correct way to express the desire for the God relationship through a proper structure, this last verse explains how to express it through the proper behavior. To ‘reveal one’s nakedness’, as used in the list of illicit unions in Va’Yikra, means to defy accepted relationships in order to satisfy a physical desire. In other words, one chooses his own rules because he wants to; he uses ‘his’ body to fulfill his own will as opposed to the true mission for which it was given to him. The command not to ascend upon steps, therein not revealing one’s nakedness on the mizbeach, would be to prohibit the redefining of a determined relationship through one’s own personal wishes and satisfying of his desires.
God has therefore set out the rules for the relationship between Him andBnei Yisrael – while they need to express their desire for it, He, and only He, initiates, defines and facilitates it – exactly like Har Sinai (‘we will do and we will hear’ and ‘I have spoke to you from the heavens’).
Summary of verses:
19: They personally witnessed that God, Himself, came down to them.
20: No other partner can be added by them to this relationship (with God in heaven or with them on earth)
21: They must express their ‘concrete’ desire for it with a structure(mizbeach), without any man-made added components (dirt) and bringkorbanot, (again, only the use of nature), upon this structure to demonstrate this desire, and then He will establish the relationship (‘I will mention My name’) and personally bless them (‘I will come and bless you’).
22: They may more strongly express their desire for it through a more solid structure (stone mizbeach), but no expression of their personal power over the relationship (‘waving the sword’) may be present within it.
23: Even their actions for expressing this desire (walking upon the mizbeachduring the service) must not include any man-determined control (‘do not reveal your nakedness’)
And if this is meaning of this section, why is it specifically placed here? Har Sinai was the paradigmatic representation of the relationship between God and Bnei Yisrael – He appeared to them and they accepted Him. But they now also needed to understand that this is what the relationship needs to be forever more, even after this one, monumental episode: He will always be there to provide for, protect and guide them as long as they are willing to properly ‘have’ Him – and these four verses, placed immediately afterHar Sinai, are the formula for this continuous proper behavior – a constant recreating of the Sinai experience – in essence, a traveling mini-Har Sinai. And this also explains why avodah zarah is so heinous a crime against God, for it is the complete antipathy of this Divinely demanded relationship: one adds his own partner – an idol (counter to verse 20), uses man-shaped material to do so – fashioned wood and stone (counter to verses 21 and 22), and determines the laws for its worship as he sees fit – satisfying his own personal desires (counter to verse 23).
Rabbi Jonathan Bailey