February 9, 2012
A love story
Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
Many of us are familiar with the rabbinic image in which God lifts Mount Sinai above the heads of the Israelites, threatening them with death if they refuse the Torah. Less familiar but no less prevalent in rabbinic literature is a strikingly different take on this scene. In the Mekhilta version of the story, for example, God lifts the mountain, and the children of Israel willingly, even breathlessly, walk beneath it, prompting God to say, quoting The Song of Songs, “O my dove in the cranny of the rocks, hidden by the cliff. Let me see your face, let me hear your voice. For your voice is sweet, and your face is comely.” Yes, the mountain is above their heads in this version, too, but it does not embody a threat. It symbolizes a wedding canopy.
And there is more. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi paints a verbal portrait in which, like the maiden in The Song of Songs, Israel faints at the sound of God’s voice, who continuously rains down dew upon His beloved to revive her. And then there is Rabbi Yose, who rendered the verse, “The Lord came from Sinai,” as describing a scene comparable to “a bridegroom coming to meet his bride.” There is also the Midrash, which detects the unmistakable scent of perfume enveloping the scene of revelation at Sinai.
In the minds and hearts of these sages, Sinai was not a scene of fear and trembling; rather, it was one of tender loving. And frankly, their reading is more consistent with the Torah’s text. How else to hear God’s stirring words, “I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to Me. If you will keep My covenant, you will be for Me a treasured possession among all the peoples”? And Israel’s response, “All that God says, we will do”? It’s a love story! But not simply a love story. It is the love story in which, at our beloved’s behest, we embrace the highest ideals of human living.
This parsha often makes me think that we spend way too much time trying to figure out what, exactly, we believe about God, and not nearly enough time — in the spirit of Sinai — just loving God. For loving God will make us righteous, while struggling over what, exactly, we believe about Him will, in the end, not really get us anywhere. Which is why we should take fuller advantage of our daily Shacharit (morning prayer) in which we reawaken the passion of Sinai, and each day stir up the old love anew. How does Shacharit open? With a reminder of why we love God. We love God because God “does justice for the exploited, gives bread to the hungry, releases the bound, gives sight to the blind. God straightens the bent and loves the righteous, protects the stranger, encourages the orphan and widow.” Not only are our hearts aflutter; our souls are moved, and our consciousness is stirred.
And a few pages later, as the recitation of Shema Yisra’el approaches, we are beneath the chuppah of Sinai again. We hear God’s intonations of love, the ancient echo of “if you will keep My covenant …” and acknowledge that we have been the recipients of a love more sublime than any other, the love that is expressed through determined and patient tutelage, twinned with the highest of expectations. “With an abundant love have you loved us, God. For the sake of our ancestors whom You taught the laws for living, may You also be gracious to us and teach us, too. Place in our hearts understanding and wisdom, enlighten our eyes in Your Torah and attach our hearts to Your Mitzvot. …” It is our meditation as we prepare to enter beneath the ancient canopy of covenant, even as it readies us to rise to the moral and spiritual challenges of this particular day.
And then the Shema itself, as we accept the ring of betrothal. And I will love you God with all my heart, all my soul, and all my possessions. You will know that I love you, as I honor those things You hold most dear. Justice and compassion. Integrity in speech and in deed. Bringing to bear the holy within myself. Love is a powerful motivator.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel brilliantly epitomized Judaism as the ability to hear the question that God is posing to us, and to respond, “Hineni, here I am.” He is describing nothing less than the continuous personal recapitulation of Sinai, a gesture that can’t possibly be carried in any frame of mind other than that of love. The story of the Revelation urges to spend less time trying to figure out what exactly we believe about God, and much more time just loving God.
Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.