This week’s Torah portion, Yitro, (Ex. 18:1 – 20:23) begins when Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, brings Moses’ wife and sons to him at Sinai and continues with the preparations for the encounter between God and the Israelite people and that sacred encounter itself, the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai.
The people Israel have seen God’s might in the plagues brought upon the Egyptians and in the splitting of the sea, but they are now about to experience God’s presence directly. As the time approached, the mountain became covered in smoke, because God, says the Torah, descended in fire. There is a display of thunder and lightning and the loud and prolonged sound of the shofar. Upon God’s instruction, Moses warns the people against ascending the mountain or even touching it lest they die. God makes sure that Moses takes precautions that, in their desire to be close to God, they do not endanger themselves.
But yet, after hearing God’s voice, they have had more than enough. Some say that they heard God speak only the first two commandments, before they begged Moses to speak the rest. Some say that God only got as far as the aleph, the first letter of “Anochi”, “I” before they could stand no more. “And all the people saw the voices and the torches and the sound of the shofar and the mountain smoking and when they saw it they stood at a distance” (Ex. 20:15) No more are they crowding at the foot of the mountain; they have literally been taken aback. Many commentators have also pointed out the odd use of the verb “to see” to describe the experience of voices and the sound of the shofar. Perhaps the experience at Sinai exceeded and crossed over the boundaries of the human senses.
Today, humans still long for an encounter with God. Perhaps the way the Torah describes God’s descent upon Mount Sinai is an appropriate metaphor, “Mount Sinai was altogether in smoke because the Eternal went down upon it in fire”. Fire is life-giving and warming but it can also destroy that which comes too close. When we set out to encounter God, we need to set a safe distance.