Yitro: All the People

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Yitro

“on the third day, the Holy One will descend before the eyes of all the people upon Mount Sinai. . .  (Shemot/ Exodus 19:11)

Good morning! This week’s Torah portion is the dramatic and religious climax of the Exodus narrative: having been freed from Pharaoh’s grip, the Israelites come to Sinai, where they are initiated into a covenant of laws and principles as free people, newly responsible for their deeds. While Moshe continues to serve as an interlocutor between God and Israel, the Torah specifically notes that the theophany at Sinai happened in the presence of “all the people,” as in the verse above, and again in 20:15 :

“And all the people saw the voices and the torches, the sound of the shofar, and the smoking mountain . . . “

Our friend Rashi interprets “all the people saw”- as well as the phrase “before the eyes of all the people” in the verse above – as teaching that there was not a single blind person among the Israelites. Perhaps he’s just being very literal, or perhaps the blindness to which he refers is a metaphor for lack of spiritual perception. If the latter, then “all the people saw” is a concise way of saying that “all of the people understood the reality and significance of the events at Sinai,” which is a plausible and generous interpretation.

To me, however, the key idea in both verses is not about “seeing” (even in the idiomatic sense of “understanding” or “perceiving”), but “all,” as in all the people witnessed this great bursting forth of the Holy. I can’t imagine an authentic Judaism that does not, in a very real way, belong to all the people- or at least, all the people who choose to be part of the probing dialogue since Sinai about how to be a holy people in a hurting world. According to our sacred story, Torah was given at Sinai but it is received continually, by each individual in each generation.

It was not given to Moshe alone but to the entire people- you and me and the rest of us- to probe, explain, explore, elucidate, expound and practice. This, for me, is an indispensable principle of Judaism: it is not the property or privilege of a chosen elite but the common inheritance of our people, who, in turn, bear responsibility for making it live in their day. All the people saw and experienced the Presence at Sinai; all the people are called to respond, and all the people have the capacity to teach new understandings of Torah in every age.

Shabbat Shalom,


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