Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Yitro – Sh’mot (Exodus): 18 - 20

This week we arrive at Mount Sinai to participate in a glorious and “epiphanic” scene of colossal scope, but not before attending to some personal and administrative matters. The touching and even intimate episode of Moshe's meeting with his father in law, Yitro (Jethro), eventually evolves into a strategic plan proffered by the latter (18:13-26).  However, to begin with, Yitro’s purpose for coming to his son in law was for another reason altogether, as is evidenced in 18:2, 5, and 6. Yitro did not come alone. He brought with him his daughter Tzipora and her two sons, “after he [Moses] had sent her back.” Apparently, before Moshe could embark on the great task ahead of him, he had to take care of the wellbeing of his own family, because a nation, a people, especially a unique one such as Yisrael, is dependent on the soundness of its components, the families (see 1st Timothy 3:2-5).  Rather than be rid of his family, in order to be able to devote himself wholly to his duties, Moshe had to do quite the opposite.  After attending to family matters, Yisrael’s leader was free to receive some instructions from his father in law, in order to improve his organizational skills prior to the revelation of YHVH and His Torah.

Moshe tells Yitro that he has been busy “making known the statutes of Elohim and His laws” to the people (18:16). These "statues and laws" are "chukim and torot" (plural of "chok" and "torah"). This is not the first time that these legal terms are used before the actual “giving of the Torah." Their usage, as seen here, as well as in B’resheet (Gen.) 26:5 and in Sh’mot (Ex.) 16:4, may help to lend to these terms a more comprehensive meaning. Thus, instead of being strictly perceived as a set of rules of 'do's' and 'don'ts,’ YHVH's instructions to His People can be viewed as just that… instructions for life, for abundant life. "Chok" - "law" - is from the root ch.o.k (chet, vav, kof), meaning "to set limits.Additionally, another, closely related root, ch.k.k (chet, kof, kof) - to “engrave” or “circumscribe” (and by implication "to decree, inscribe and enact") must be considered. By granting the Torah YHVH is giving His people their “allotted portion" or “fixed amount” (see Prov. 30:8 and Matt. 6:11), desiring to impress it upon their hearts. Ultimately this “imprint” will culminate with the Torah being sealed upon the hearts through the Renewed Covenant (see Jer. 31:33). At the same time, the act of inscribing is mutual. It is not only YHVH who is embossing His ‘imprint’ upon those who belong to Him, for He says: “I have inscribed you (“cha'ko'tich,” using the same root of ch.k.k) on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:16 italics added).

The root for Torah is y.r.h (yod, resh, hey) and means to “shoot,” as in “hitting the mark.”  Since “sin” – chet – means “missing the mark,” the “Torah” is to help us become ‘sharp shooters.’

With some practice in nationhood now accomplished, “the House of Jacob" and the "Sons of Israel” (ref. 19:3) appear to be in a slightly better position to hear directly from YHVH. Shlomo Ostrovski1 delineates these two, seemingly synonymous terms that are used here for the Nation, with  the "House of Ya'acov" being the title for the “natural” entity with its “natural” free will, in contradistinction to the "spiritual entity" – that is the "Sons of Yisrael" – who are to employ their will and capacity to make choices on the spiritual level. The next verse continues: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Myself” (19:4 italics added). This kind of imagery demonstrates the tenderness of a parent, as well as that of a husband, who, in Biblical terminology "brings" his bride to himself (e.g. Gen. 24:67). According to Nehama Leibowitz, the above verse describes "the road from Egypt to Sinai (and) represents a momentous spiritual and physical transition."2  The message Moshe is to convey to the People continues “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine” (19:5). This "special treasure" is "s'gula," and means "personal property," as Psalm 135:4 affirms: For YHVH has chosen Jacob for Himself, Israel for His special treasure [s'gulato]” (italics added). (Notice the Psalm’s parallel usage of “Jacob” and “Israel,” just as in 19:3 above.)

At this juncture Yisrael is seemingly being fast transformed into a well-administered group of people, but above that “Israel is chosen to reflect God's holiness and live out his commandments, reflecting His standards in a life of wholehearted compliance with the terms of the covenant’3. With this in mind, YHVH further defines His people: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (19:6). Thus, Yisrael will be equipped and prepared for this (ultimate) ideal goal of reflecting Elohim’s image by becoming a holy covenant community of priests who are to minister to a royal Sovereign.  "Holiness" is a totally new concept to the fledgling Nation, hence the cleansing and separating measures which are imposed on them. If noted in list form, the people are to: "consecrate," "wash clothes," "set bounds,” “be careful not to go up to the mountain,” nortouch its base," and "not come near [their] wives" (19:10, 12, 15). Being an “am s'gula” they are not only YHVH's possession, but, as mentioned, also a reflection of their Owner, marked by a distinction of status and nature. "Kadosh," - “holy” - primarily denotes separation and devotion to the service of YHVH. In the quick transition that they are making, the acts of “consecration” serve as an external illustration of what has hitherto been a completely strange notion. Likewise, the loftiness, holiness, and sublime stature of YHVH will be expressed in an outward fashion, as we shall soon see.

As part of YHVH's instructions, which precede His descent from the Mountain, He says to Moshe “When the trumpet sounds long, they shall come near the mountain” (19:13b); and (literally) “when the yovel is drawn out…" (referring here to a prolonged sound of the shofar, which is mentioned here – 191:16, 19 -  for the very first time). The current reference, however, is to the type of sound and not to the instrument producing that sound. The root of yovel (y.v.l - yod, bet/vet, lamed) means to “lead” (e.g. Jer. 31:9 – “And with supplications I will lead them”), as it was undoubtedly the ram who supplied the horn for blowing, and was also used to lead ceremonial processions. Blowing the horn (shofar) also became the signal for the year of “jubilee” - hence “yovel” for the 50th year. The English word ‘jubilee’ is therefore a derivative of the Hebrew “yovel.” The usage of the “yovel” in this context may also allude to Yisrael’s impending “year of release” from their bondage and into the “liberty of the sons of Elohim” (see Rom. 8:21).

The greatest sound and light show is about to unfold with the following ‘pyrotechnical effects’: Thundering and lightning, a thick cloud, loud sound of a shofar, smoke (which envelops the mountain completely), and fire. The smoke is like the smoke of a furnace; the mountain is quaking greatly, with the long blast of the shofar - becoming louder and louder (ref. 19:16-19).

The first part of chapter 20 (1-17) is devoted to the Decalogue, the ‘Ten Commandments,’ or literally the d'varim – “words,” of the root d.v.r (which we have previously discussed as being the root for “desert, plague, to drive, thing, flock, holy of holies” and more). It is YHVH’s voice, which utters these “d’varim” - “words.” (Incidentally, in the text itself the number ‘ten’ is not mentioned in connection with these declarations of YHVH.) The seventeen verses of these “d'varim” constitute for the Israelites the foundation, or basis, of their Covenant relationship with Elohim and with one another, helping to form this “am sgula” into what they are and even more so who they are to become, being their very raison d'etre (reason for existence).  Notice that although at that time the Levitical priesthood had not yet come into being, mention is made of priests in 19:22. Some of the sages, as well as Rashi (the renowned Middle-Ages commentator), attribute this position to the firstborn, presumably because the latter belonged to YHVH (ref. Parashat Bo, Ex. 13:2). The existence of this early priesthood is a precursor pointing to a future reality (of a "nation of priests") yet to be fulfilled (even beyond the era of the Levitical priesthood).

The first seven verses (of chapter 20) deal exclusively with Yisrael's relationship with YHVH. The text opens up (v. 2) with "I am" – “anochi” (and not “ani,” a simpler form of "I am"), denoting YHVH's inextricable link to His People, its circumstances ("who brought you out of Egypt") and destiny.  “You shall have no other gods over my face” (v. 3, literal translation, italics added), is next. The word "face" utilized in this way refers to direct defiance and spite, implying, according to the Mekhilta (2nd century commentary on Exodus) and Rashi, that this prohibition is for all times, not just for that generation. "Face" ("panim") connotes Presence (e.g. Ex. 33:14-15 “My face shall go before you”). And as YHVH's Presence is everywhere, this singular prohibition applies to all places4.  YHVH's jealousy over His People (20:5) may be likened to the response of a jealous husband, thus making the Covenant of Elohim with Yisrael much like that of a marriage contract5 (remember the reference to 19:4 above?)

This is followed by the declarations concerning the Shabbat. Although the Shabbat is to be an expression of the People's relationship with YHVH, its observance instructions ‘overflow’ into the life of the community, affecting also their personal associations. Shabbat stems from the root “to sit,” “shevet” (sh.v.t., shin, bet/vet, tav). Sitting implies rest and bringing activity to a halt, such as YHVH did when “He ceased from all His work” of creation in B’resheet (Gen. 2:2). Whereas all other “calendarian” divisions (such as days, months and years) are dictated by natural phenomena, the seven-day week is purely a spiritual ‘divide.’

Since the first One to celebrate the Shabbat was Elohim Himself, after He had completed His work of Creation, it follows suit that this is a universal declaration that He and He alone is the Creator! In Sh’mot (Exodus) 31:12-17 we are told that the Shabbat is an "eternal covenant" and a sign between YHVH and the sons of Yisrael. In D’varim (Deut.) 5:14-15 the reason given for observing the Shabbat's rest, together with one's entire household, is in order to remember the slavery in Egypt, and the freedom realized upon being brought out of there "by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm." Here is an acknowledgement of the miracle of ceasing to be a ‘slave’ (one who never rests), and of becoming free. Similarly, we are no longer “slaves to sin, but have been set free” from it (Ro. 6:6, 18). Hebrews 4:1-11 tells us that the Shabbat rest is the reward bestowed on the one who believes and obeys; Hence Shabbat also speaks powerfully of one's faith and obedience. The cessation from manual labor and from financial worries is a proclamation of trust and faith in the Heavenly Father for all provisions - not only during Shabbat, but also at all other times. We noted above that Shabbat is rooted in the verb "to sit." Yeshua, after having completed His task of offering the sacrifice for all times, “…sat down at the right hand of Elohim” (ref. Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 10:12 italics added).

Following the Shabbat's injunctions is the command concerning honoring of parents; "honoring" is esteeming them “weighty” ("kabed", k.b/v.d, as we observed in last week’s Parasha), with its promise of long life "upon the land which YHVH your Elohim is giving you" (20:12). Thus, there is a gradual and progressive transition from the ‘heavenly’ precepts to the Shabbat, being a link between the heavenly bond and its earthly expression, through to injunctions concerning one's nuclear family which is to reflect the relationship with the Heavenly Father, all the way down to one's conduct within the community (v. 13-16), and finally to the hidden motives of one’s heart (v. 17). Immediately after YHVH declares the above, we are told that “… all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking…” (v.18). As to the “witnessing,” the Hebrew says “ro’eem,” that is present tense “seeing” – “and all people – “am” – is seeing the voices, and the lightning flashes and the sound of the shofar…”

The usage of the present tense, as well as the “seeing of the voices,” transports us from a naturally perceived scene to one that is beyond the natural faculties and senses. This conveys to us that while the dramatic spectacle took place in time and space, it seems that an added dimension, beyond the natural circumstances, was also present and/or involved.  More than once mention is made of the fact that YHVH was in the “cloud,” or “smoke” (19:9, 16,18; 20:18). But in verse 21 we encounter a reference to a new term, “arafel” – translated, “thick darkness,” or “gloom.” The root of “arafel” is the verb “arof” (ayin, resh, pey/fey), meaning “to drip,” hence employing a figure of speech related to precipitation, such as the cloud. It points to the “veiled glory” of YHVH, so many times made deliberately obscure in order to protect His people from His awesome Presence that cannot dwell alongside sin. Even in everyday life, a situation which appears dark, uncertain, or bleak is not always negative, as it could be indicative of the “arafel,” the “thick darkness where Elohim is” (20:21, emphasis added).    

YHVH continues to elaborate on His instructions, speaking through Moshe (20:22-26). In contradiction to the prohibition against the making of images and glorifying precious metals (v. 23), comes the statement, “an altar of earth you shall make for Me” (v. 24). “Altar” is “miz'be'ach,” of the root z.v.ch (zayin, bet/vet, chet) - "to sacrifice." The altar is to be made of earth - adama - the substance that makes up man’s material being and after which he is named (Adam). If the “miz'be'ach” should be made of stones, they are not to be embellished by any of man's efforts, or by tools and implements that are made by his hands (v. 25), lest the altar be desecrated. “Profane or desecrate is "chalel" (ch.l.l., chet, lamed, lamed), meaning also "pierced through" or "hollow," and hence, "flute" and "slain." In Yishayahu (Isaiah) 53:5 we read, “He was pierced through – mecholal (of the same root) - for our transgressions.” However, as we have just seen, “mecholal” does not only mean “hollow” (and hence “pierced through”), it is also “desecrated,” as indeed Yeshua was, having borne our Sin. One last injunction concerns the prohibition of making steps leading up to the altar, so that one's nakedness would not be exposed. “Nakedness” here (20: 26) is "erva" (a.r.h, ayin, resh, hey), "to lay bear, uncover," and "shame." This root, however, also means to “pour out," or to “empty out," such as Yeshua did when “He poured out (heh'e'ra) His soul unto death” (Is. 53: 12), so that our nakedness would be covered and our shame removed.

1 Moses on the Witness Stand, Shlomo Ostrovski, Keren Ahava Meshichit,  Jerusalem, 1976, 1999.

2 New Studies in Shmot Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y. 

3 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, Vol. 2, ed. R. Laird Harris, Moody Press, Chicago,  1980.

4 New Studies in Shmot, Part 1, Nechama Leibowitz, trans. Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y. 

5 The Chumash Shmot With The Commentary Daat Mikrah, Pub. Mossad Harav Kook, Jm. 1991.