Behar-Bechukotai | The Significance of Sinai
Updated: May 6
One of the most famous places in Jewish history is Mount Sinai, where G-d gave us the Torah three thousand three hundred and twenty-four years ago – the anniversary of which we will celebrate on the upcoming festival of Shavuot. Mount Sinai is so much a part of the Jewish psyche and who we are, but surely what was given – G-d’s Torah – is more important than where it was given; why, then, is there such emphasis on the place, Sinai? Why has it become so important to us?
This question comes up in this week’s parsha – a double portion, Behar-Bechukotai – which begins with Vayedaber Hashem el Moshe Behar Sinai, “Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai.” The parsha then details the laws of the sabbatical year, making specific mention that these laws were given at Mount Sinai. Rashi comments that this is to teach us that all of the laws – the general principles and the details thereof – were given at Mount Sinai. But why is there such emphasis on place? We see this again in the last verse of the second portion, Bechukotai, which says Eileh hamitzvot asher tziva Hashem et moshe el Bnei Yisrael behar Sinai, “These are the commandments which G-d commanded Moshe for the children of Israel on Mount Sinai.” Again, place is emphasised. Why?
This question can equally be asked on the very first Mishnah of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, which begins with a detailed list of how the Torah was passed down from generation to generation: Moshe kibel Torah miSinai, “Moses received the Torah from Sinai.” The Maharal of Prague asks why Sinai is emphasised. It should have said Moshe received the Torah from G-d. Why does it say Sinai? Is seems as if the Mishnah is giving more emphasis to the place rather than to what was actually given there. How do we understand this?
The significance of Sinai
The Maharal explains that the Mishnah emphasises Sinai to show that the Torah was given somewhere, not just anywhere, and this teaches us that the Torah is fixed and important. By way of analogy, let’s say you have something important to tell somebody. The one scenario is that you bump into them at the shops and while you are standing in the aisles doing your Shabbos shopping, you tell them the important bit of information. Contrast this type of encounter with one where you make an appointment to see the person at his office, and you meet at a designated time to go through the information. It may be the same content, but the two scenarios are in entirely different contexts. The one is casual; the other is serious and conveys importance. The Maharal says that the fact that so much emphasis is given to Mount Sinai teaches us about the importance of the Torah. It’s so important, that G-d didn’t just happen to give it to us in a casual encounter but set aside a time and a place to give it to us, in a serious, meaningful encounter in a specific, designated place.
Taking our relationship with G-d seriously
We find this concept of taking matters seriously versus casually in our second portion, where G-d warns the people lest they relate to Him in a casual, haphazard fashion. It says in chapter 26 verse 23, vahalachtem imi b’keri, “if you walk with G-d in a casual, indifferent fashion.” What does it mean to take G-d casually?
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik offers an explanation, in his discussion of Kedushat HaMakom, the concept of “sanctity of place.” We know that G-d has many names although He is One, with each name reflecting a different aspect of Him. One of G-d’s Names is HaMakom, “The Place,” which according to the Talmud reflects the fact that the world is not the place of G-d but rather G-d is the place of the world; He contains it, not the other way around. Rav Soloveitchik expands on this in describing the difference between a nomadic existence and a civilised one. In early civilisation, human beings were nomads, wandering from place to place to wherever the grazing was good; once the grazing ran out, they would move on to the next place. Eventually civilisation advanced and human beings stopped being nomads and started living in cities. There are two main differences between a nomad and a civilised person: one is that the nomad is purely selfish, taking what he can while the grazing is good and then moving on. The other is that the nomad cannot form any emotional bond with the place where he is at, because he is only there for a short while. In contrast, a civilised person does not live selfishly but is part of a community; and civilised human beings form an attachment to their dwelling place. There may be a drought one year or other troubles, but they stay because they belong there.
Rav Soloveitchik says that our Judaism and our relationship with Hashem – HaMakom – has to be one of attachment to a permanent “place.” We must not relate to it as though we are spiritual nomads, wandering here and there just to get a bit of inspiration and abandoning everything once the inspiration is gone or when difficulties arise.
This idea of permanently inhabiting a conceptual place relates to everything in life – for example, marriage: the nomadic philosophy of marriage maintains that you don’t get married, you just live together. While the relationship is good, you stay in it; and as soon as there is any sort of challenge, you move out. But the Torah’s view of marriage is that it is a relationship premised on commitment. There will be good times and there will be more challenging times, but you stay because you are committed to the relationship and are willing to move beyond self. A Jewish family should be built to last and therefore it must be built on the foundations of Torah, of commitment and loyalty. Only something established on Torah principles has the ability to endure forever.
In our service of G-d, says Rav Soloveitchik, we cannot just be spiritual nomads, selfishly wandering from place to place seeking inspiration. Our relationship with Judaism and with Hashem has to be one of a bonding and commitment to a place – HaMakom. Real commitment requires selflessness, but is truly rewarding because only with real commitment is there an emotional bond and the ability to achieve something meaningful. Without commitment, everything is regarded casually and there is no permanence to the relationship.
This is the meaning of the Maharal’s explanation on the Mishnah mentioned above. Sinai is emphasised to show that we have to attach ourselves to the conceptual and spiritual “place” of the Torah. Sinai represents this bond and commitment, where our Judaism is not casual but fixed and taken seriously. Hence Sinai is so important to us, because only things which are fixed have enduring value.
The permanence of Torah
It’s not coincidental, then, that the Torah was given on a mountain. A mountain symbolises something which is immovable, as indicated by the expression “to move mountains” – which implies that you actually can’t. The Torah is fixed; it is the pillar of eternal truth in the world. If we want to build an enduring family, an enduring community, it has to be built on Torah principles. This is referred to in the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot which says Kol knesiya shehi l’shem shamayim sofa lehitkayem, “any community dedicated to heaven will endure forever,” meaning a community dedicated to G-d and to the eternal Torah values and principles which have been with us for generations. In fact, the Avot d’Rabi Natan, the Talmudic commentary on Pirkei Avot, says that knesiya shehi l’shem shamayim, a community dedicated to heaven, refers to the community that stood at Mount Sinai. When we live in accordance with the Torah’s principles, we are connected to that eternal, enduring community which began at Mount Sinai. We become part of a long history of Jews, connecting with eternity.
Generation Sinai and Sinai Indaba
Sinai is not just the place where the Torah happened to be given, but represents the fact that Torah is a permanent and an important part of who we are. If we want permanence and stability in our lives, then we have to be anchored in Torah values. Hence the names of two major upcoming events in our community – Generation Sinai and Sinai Indaba – have the word Sinai in them. If we want to build a thriving South African Jewish community, we have to build it on the enduring values of our Torah, given at Sinai.
Generation Sinai will take place please G-d this coming Tuesday, on Rosh Chodesh Sivan. Thousands of parents and children across all of our Jewish day schools will gather to learn in a spirit of unity and togetherness. The programme is called “Generation Sinai: Sharing our Legacy,” conveying that the Torah’s values are the foundation of building and nurturing strong Jewish families in our community; they are our connection to all the generations that came before us and to all the generations that will come after.
The second event, Sinai Indaba, coming up on the weekend of June 16th, conveys this idea as well. Outstanding speakers from all over the world and from all different fields of human endeavour will be coming to share, inspire and empower us with their unique perspectives within the eternal values of our Torah, and how these relate to everyday life – be it in marriage, parenting, business ethics or politics. Torah is timeless, relating to all kinds of modern phenomena; there is nothing that isn’t covered by the wide ambit of Torah. It is these Torah principles which give meaning to everything we do, and they are the secret of Jewish continuity throughout history, going all the way back to our formation as a nation at Sinai. We come from Sinai, and that gives us the vision and motivation to go forward and build a thriving, dynamic community.
The key, of course, is your participation. We are all in this together, building our community. Generation Sinai is dependent on parents and grandparents participating like they did last year, which was a phenomenal success. So be sure to diarise it: this coming Tuesday. Be in touch with your schools, they will be sending out information about the program. Be sure to diarise Sinai Indaba as well, on the weekend of the June 16th. I encourage you to go onto the website to make your booking, www.sinai-indaba.co.za.
We’re all in this together. Let us embrace our legacy and work together to build a wonderful Jewish community.