Yitro: Respecting Stones

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

“Make for Me an altar of earth and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your sacrifices of well-being . . . . Do not ascend My altar by steps, that your nakedness may not be exposed upon it.” (Shemot/ Exodus 20:21-23)

Good morning! This week we read one of the grandest narratives in the entire Bible: the giving of the Torah in fire and thunder and the speaking of the Ten Commandments. After the dramatic revelation, the people fall away in awe, and a few more laws are given, including the law above to build an altar and make offerings. The altar cannot be made of stone shaped by  iron; Rashi explains that the altar bring peace but iron represents war, so the latter is not suitable for the former.

So far, so good, but what’s this about not ascending by steps? Once again, Rashi to the rescue: he says this means the altar must be built with a sloping ramp, so the priests going up to make the offerings will not have to make big steps up the stairs, which could reveal. . . well. . . you know, too much information, as it were. That would be disrespectful in a sacred place. Yet Rashi also points out that just a few chapters later, we get a law that says that the priests have to wear special linen garments for modesty, so there would, in fact, not be too much uncovered no matter what kind of steps the priests had to climb. (Cf. Shemot 28:42)

OK, now you’re asking, how did we get from the Ten Commandments to puzzles involving priestly underwear, and what does this have to with the revelation at Sinai which is the highlight of the parsha? Well, let’s go back to Rashi, who says that even though the priests would not reveal themselves immodestly- because of their special garments- big steps would be close enough to something that might suggest immodesty that it would be disrespectful to the stones of the altar. We all know that stones couldn’t care less who walks on them or how they are dressed, so Rashi points out the moral lesson, which is really about people: if the Torah is teaching us to be exceedingly careful not to show even a hint of disrespect to stones, who don’t react and can’t care, then how much more should we be careful with human beings, who are made in the Divine Image and who care very much about their honor.

Now I can understand why this the final verse of this Torah portion: because the sages may have wanted us to understand that the revelation at Sinai is not a bunch of technical rules guiding only behavior, but is a set of spiritual principles which we internalize in order to be transformed towards compassion, care, and love. The steps of the altar have a moral purpose: to help us achieve conscience in all things. This law governs stepping on stones, but moves us towards the deepest ethic of respect and generosity towards others. This, to me, is the goal of the whole Torah, then and now.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

2 Comments »

  1. moshe edelman said

    Neal

    Lovely Dvar Torah.No, more than that.
    A very powerful message of kal v’chomer
    Stones that breathe life and hearts that are as hard as stones
    Stones have much to teach us.
    Careful who you step on
    Careful what you step on

    Moshe Edelman

  2. rabbineal said

    Moshe, thank you for your beautiful words which bring out so much of what I was trying to say.

    Shabbat Shalom,

    RNJL

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