Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-2:23)

“So the people remained at a distance, while Moses
approached the thick cloud where God was.” (Exodus 20:15)

Parashat Yitro is the moment the Torah was written for. The Israelites are camped around the base of Mt. Sinai. The priests and the elders climb partway up the mountain, but no farther. Moses alone ascends to the peak. And God reveals the Torah.

Nachmanides (1194 – 1270; 13th century Spanish commentator) notes Mt. Sinai is the sanctuary for God’s revelation. As such, it serves as the model for the gradations of sanctity found later in the mishkan, or Tabernacle, in the wilderness. So, the Israelite tribes assemble around the Outer Court of the mishkan, its least sacred space. Only the priests entered the mishkan’s Holy Place, which had greater sanctity. Finally, the High Priest alone enters the Holy of Holies, the center of sanctity in the wilderness. The mishkan is a portable Mt. Sinai.

Even though we no longer wander the desert (literally, at least), the architecture of the synagogue and the choreography of Jewish liturgy both evoke the memory of the mishkan and reenact the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The congregation (the Children of Israel) sits at the foot of the bima, or raised dais. Those leading the service’s rituals (the priests and elders) alight upon the bima. And only one person (Moses) reaches into the aron hakodesh, the sacred ark, to retrieve (or receive) the Sefer Torah, the Torah scroll. At that moment, all over the world, Jews recreate history’s peak moment.

Jewish wisdom says all Jewish souls were present at Sinai (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 146a). The synagogue ritual allows us to return each and every week.

Gut Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom