The Revelation at Mt Sinai which forms the central part of parshat Yitro is arguably the most spectacular moment in the Torah narrative.
It is in many ways the sequel to last week’s portion where the children of Israel escape from slavery in Egypt, dramatically crossing the sea of reeds as the waters miraculously part for them, drowning the Egyptian army who are vigorously in pursuit of the Israelites. The Israelites were now free from Pharaoh’s yoke but in so many ways their journey to freedom had just begun. The revelatory moment at the foot of Mt Sinai that we find in this week’s parshaestablishes the mitzvot – commandments, laws that form the backbone of our legal tradition. The revelatory epiphany at Sinai was a moment when the timeless Eternal One crashed through the spatial and temporal dimensions of our reality and caused a paradigm shift in the relationship of Israel to Divinity and to the world. It was a profound collective mystical experience. However, it was/is impossible to maintain this intense level of engagement with the Divine.
There is a famous Zen aphorism, “before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment chop wood, carry water.” Before Sinai the Israelites chopped wood and carried water as indentured slaves for a cruel absolute monarch, Pharaoh and his Egyptian subjects. After the Sinai revelation Israelites still chopped wood and carried water but the hope was/is in the effort to build a different kind of society, one that cared for the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger.
In ancient societies the law was understood as having been gifted to humanity by the gods or in the Israelite case, by God.
This doesn’t mean however that Divine laws must remain static and not subject to change. There have been many examples in our tradition whereby laws in the Torah have been subjected to Rabbinic amendments. In fact, even the Torah has edited its own laws! A classic example of this is the story of the daughters of Zelophehad that we will read of in a few months. According to the original law, land could only be inherited by men from their fathers. Zelophehad’s five daughters would be left without an inheritance. The daughters brought their objections before Moses who raised their case with God. God changed God’s mind and agreed to the daughter’s proposal.
We learn from this week’s portion, and the rest of the book of Exodus, that Law is intimately linked to the revelatory experience. In fact, the Sinai experience cannot be interpreted without the establishment of legal codes. However even if we understand the Divine as the one true, ineffable, timeless reality, it is also true that we here on this planet are subject to the laws of time and space. Cultures and civilisations have changed throughout time and will continue to do so, as will the way we struggle to understand the Divine source of all life and the world around us. In order to stay true to the nature of the revelation at Sinai we must be open to the possibility of its continuous unfolding and renewal in every generation. This requires us to embrace a relationship with our tradition that remains open to the possibilities of change. Our understanding the world around us, the cosmos and the nature of life has changed dramatically since the written Torah was redacted and codified, and will, no doubt, continue to evolve over time. This understanding demands from us that we engage actively in the ethical and spiritual evolution of our tradition. I firmly believe that in so doing we remain true to the essence of the revelation at Sinai.
Rabbi George Mordecai