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Parsha Ponderings Yisro


כה תאמר אל בני ישראל, אתם ראיתם כי מן השמים דברתי עמכם. לא תעשון אתי אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב לא תעשון לכם. מזבח אדמה תעשה לי וכו’ בכל המקום אשר אזכיר את שמי אבוא אליך וברכתיך.

So shall you say to the Israelites: You have seen that from the heavens I have spoken to you. Do not make with me gods of silver, and gods of gold you shall not make for yourselves. An altar [made] of earth you shall make for me. Wherever I shall [choose to] invoke my name, I will come to you and bless you.

Immediately following the Revelation at Sinai, God asks Moshe to convey His command to refrain from idolatry and erect an altar. The timing could not have been more puzzling. Hadn’t we only just borne witness to God Himself articulating the very same prohibition banning idolatry in the clearest revelation ever seen by man? Was it really necessary to reiterate that commandment minutes later via His intermediary Moshe? And what was so pressing about the Altar at this precise moment? Indeed, what do either of these commandments have to do with the fact that “we had seen that from the heavens God had spoken to us”?

In our attempt to resolve the aforementioned questions, we must pose yet another. We are cautioned here against making gods of silver with God. When it comes to golden gods, however, we are told to refrain from making them for ourselves [see Ramban]. Why the difference?

Perhaps the answer will allow us to discern a deeper meaning to this entire sequence of commandments.

The Israelites had just experienced an encounter with God unlike any man had ever known. In God’s words, they had observed Him speaking directly to them from the heavens. Now that the Heavenly curtain was drawn, however, God retreated once again to the hidden recesses of backstage, and the Israelites crash-landed back on Earth with a resounding thud. After getting that close to God, observing Him up close in all of His unbridled glory, being back on terra firma was terribly dispiriting.

How could one ever hope of developing a relationship with God, who had proven so utterly beyond everything earthly? What could mortal man possibly have in common with Almighty God?

Had that question been allowed to hang unanswered, it could have only led to one of two conclusions. The first would be to deem God Himself inaccessible, in which case one’s spiritual aspiration would have to be limited to sub-level manifestations of His Godliness, or gods of silver, as it were, serving with Him. Alternatively, one would have to ignore the presence of that inaccessible God altogether, creating for himself a world in which that God wouldn’t exist, and an alternative “god of gold” would instead substitute as the ultimate divinity.

Sensing their dilemma, God assured them that neither of these actions were necessary.

Incorporeality notwithstanding, said God, you needn’t worry, for My preferred medium of connection is through an altar made of coarse, rough-cut, dirt. What is important is only that I decide to invoke My Name upon it, for whatever I deign fitting to serve as a bonding mechanism between My children and I, shall draw us together regardless of its outward appearance. You, My children, need not climb to the Heavens to find Me. To the contrary. It Is I who will make it My business to come down to you on Earth, and infuse the decidedly earthly entities with which you serve Me, with the very Godliness you have observed in the highest of heavens.

Be it a palm branch or ram’s horn, flatbread or candelabra, so long as it has My Name inscribed on it, it is no less holy than the angels, and no more earthly than the heavens themselves.

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