By Rabbi Sara Rich
Excitement can lead us to some extreme behaviors. As I sat in my warm, cozy living room last Saturday night, watching red-nosed Bills fans cheering in 5o weather, I reflected on what it means to be so devoted to a cause. I haven’t experienced it firsthand myself, but it seems as though the hype of the crowd, and the hope for the win, have a warming effect that makes the fans impervious to the weather.
The Israelites are feeling the hype as well in our Torah portion this week, Yitro. Fresh off of the miraculous Exodus from Egypt, when God brings them from slavery to freedom, they are eager for the next chapter. Sure, they got frustrated on the journey, complaining about the food and water but, despite these concerns, they are ready to be in relationship with God.
God too is enamored. God makes an offer to the Israelites via Moses: “If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples… you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5-6).
When Moses relays this proposal to the Israelites, they respond with unbridled enthusiasm. According to the TurHaAroch’s commentary on the verse, they don’t even let Moses finish talking when they respond, “All that the Eternal has spoken we will do!” (Exod. 19:8).
Riding the wave of this religious fervor, Moses gives the people instructions to prepare them for the revelation at Mt. Sinai. God insists that the Israelites wait two days to become physically pure, and to launder their garments. Then, God instructs Moses to create a perimeter around the foot of the mountain, because any Israelite who tries to touch the mountain will die. On the third day, they stand at the foot of the mountain. As God speaks to them, there is fire and smoke, horns blaring and thunder rumbling. The Israelites tremble in fear as they witness God’s revelation.
The scene was effective, though perhaps too effective. The Israelites, just a few days ago ready to leap into God’s arms, are now terrified. They say to Moses, “You speak to us and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die” (Exod. 20:16).
I am struck by the tension in which the Israelites are living. First, they long to approach God, together, as one earnest community. But just days later, when they do, they encounter a terrifying scene that causes them to leap back in fear. I imagine their faith being tested in these moments as they questioned what it might mean to be in covenant with this God.
We too live in tension about what it means to be part of a covenant. Close to two years in to the Covid-19 pandemic, we long to gather safely in the comforting walls of God’s sanctuary. But the surge of the Omicron variant has led many synagogues to suspend in-person gathering. And the horror of the hostage situation in Colleyville, TX last weekend reminds us that we cannot worship as a community without fear.
There is an important distinction between our experience and that of the Israelites. For them, their fear is of God’s power. They witnessed a defeat of Pharaoh that seemed impossible to them at first. They learned that God’s methodology was ruthless – from the relatively mild plagues of blood and frogs to the killing of every Egyptian first born. It’s understandable why the strength and the form of the revelation was so frightening to them that they begged Moses to be their intermediary.
For us, the fear isn’t of God’s booming presence, but rather of God’s silence. How can it be that Jews aren’t safe in God’s own house?
I wish I could end this column with an answer to that question, but I cannot. These events shake our faith and lead us to ask the questions that have troubled us for ages. What I can suggest is that we each find an answer for ourselves to this question: Why do I show up, in spite of the risk? Your answer to this question is your source of courage and your reminder of the covenant that we are all a part of – a covenant with God, in community with one another.
Rabbi Sara Rich is the Executive Director at Hillel of Buffalo.