Journeying to Sinai

There is an idea, expressed by our Rabbis, that the Divine intervention that led to the Exodus from Egypt and liberation from slavery was an act of grace by God. It was given to the children of Israel be hinam—‘for free’. But despite their acknowledgment of this miracle, the Rabbis were uncomfortable with it. Why? In the Rabbinic system, help from God needs to be preceded by human effort. After all, that is the purpose of the mitzvot. We do the work as commanded—observe the mitzvot—and only then does God assist.

The revelation that comes to us as an act of grace, without human effort, is known by the Aramaic term itoruta de la eyla. After sojourning in Egypt for 400 years, Israel had to leave—be hipazon—in a hurry and God came to their aid, freeing them from Pharaoh’s despotism, initially without effort on their part.

So, how do we make sense of this itoruta de la eyla that is memorialised by Pesach? Imagine that we are a group of mountain climbers: We see the beauty of the mountain-top from the base camp. Then, we are taken up in a helicopter to the top of the mountain. From there we have the panoramic view—and we return to base-camp with a new view of the terrain we are to traverse. The itoruta de la eyla that is memorialised by Pesach is the mountain-top experience that the climber was given, before undertaking the trek.

Most of us have had these experiences—in nature, deep in meditation or prayer, or on being caught unawares by the beauty of unfolding reality. The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called these moments an interruption—a moment, an insight, that interrupts our normal, habitual ways of operating. When these interruptions break through the veils of the mundane, we are blessed to experience an itoruta de la eyla—an act of grace, a gift from the source of all life. The Rabbis understood, however, that we cannot remain in that epiphanic state forever; the helicopter that transported us to the mountain-top for a very brief glimpse at the big picture returns us to base-camp. Nothing of lasting value can be be hinam, ′for free‘.

Back at the base of the mountain we must decide if we want to make the effort to climb to the top of the mountain. If we choose to climb the mountain, that glimpse that we had at the top sustains us as we now reach for the mountain-top, slowly becoming a permanent part of our being.

The potential of Pesach is our awareness that we are more than the insistent limitations of mundane existence would have us believe, while the period of counting the Omer is a time for us to do the difficult but rewarding work of climbing the mountain.

Our Sages were placing a challenge before us. Are we willing to climb? Can we cultivate enough will-power to go on this sacred pilgrimage? Despite our fear of all that is unknown are we willing to evolve?

While our Sages presented this challenge, they also understood the importance of having a context and a destination. After the itoruta de la eyla of Pesach, at the end of the Counting of the Omer, arriving at Mount Sinai culminates in receiving the Torah.

At the fifth chapter of the book of Exodus, Moses says to Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go that they may serve me.’ The purpose of our liberation from slavery is attainment of the understanding that being free to serve is the true meaning of freedom from enslavement. We can only stand together at Sinai and receive the Torah when we have truly dedicated ourselves to manifesting its teaching, wisdom and love in the world. What began at Pesach is realised at Shavuot.

Rabbi George Mordecai

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