Shabbat Yitro – “Hushed into Breathless Silence …”
Shabbat Yitro – 1/22/2011 (7th of Sh’vat, 5771)
By Mark Rantz, Rabbinical Intern, Kehilat Ariel Messianic Synagogue, San Diego
When the Holy One, Blessed be He, gave the Torah at Mt. Sinai, not a bird chirped, not a fowl flew, not an ox lowed, not an angel flew, nor did the seraphim proclaim, “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh”. The sea did not roll, nor did a creature make a sound. All of the universe was hushed into breathless silence . . . and the voice went forth, I AM Adonai your God! (Talmud, Shemot Rabbah 29:9)
As a student in my final year at Bethel Seminary, San Diego, I am currently enrolled in a homiletics class entitledÂ “Effective Communication from Old Testament Genres”, in which we are not only exploring the necessity of preaching from the Tanakh, but also seeking to master our preaching and teaching skills within this context.Â With Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament by Dr. Walter C. Kaiser as our text, our professor in class discussion recently inquired of us why we think so many struggle not only with teaching from the Tanakh, but also with finding effective ways to accurately apply its teachings in the lives of their congregants. As perplexing as this question might seem to the average Christian leader, for us within Messianic Judaism, the instruction (or Torah) of the L-rd is the very bedrock of our faith and practice, and defines us in every possible way as a people! So many Christians see Torah as an endless list of rules and genealogies, but we see Adonai as not only our deliverer from Egypt, but also as our Torah-giver, who loved us enough to provide us His holy instruction!
It is from this perspective that we come to our Parasha, where immediately following Pesach, our people are seen journeying with Moshe to the foot of Mt. Sinai, arriving on the first day of the month of Sivan (Ex. 19:1). At Sinai, Moshe ascends the mountain and the L-rd commands him to tell the leaders, “If you will pay careful attention to what I say and keep my covenant, then you will be my own treasure from among all the peoples … and you will be a kingdom of Cohanim (Priests) for me, a nation set apart” (Ex.19: 5-6). After hearing this message, all of Israel responds saying “kol asher diber Adonai na’aseh” or, “all that Adonai has spoken, we shall do.” Moshe then tells the people to sanctify themselves before Hashem, who will descend “before the eyes of all the people” in three days (Ex. 19:11).Â They are forbidden to touch, under penalty of death, the boundaries of the mountain, or to sexually approach or have contact with a woman.Â While in preparation for this holy convocation before the L-rd, on the morning of the third day, the children of Israel gather once again at the foot of the mountain where, amidst thunder, and lightning, and billows of smoke and fire, and at the sound of the Shofar, the Shechinah of Adonai is made manifest to the people.
From this place, in Exodus 20, Adonai speaks directly to the children of Israel reciting His Aseret Hadiberot, or Ten Commandments. In a demonstration of divine holiness, unlike anything seen before, the children of Israel are brought in direct contact with the L-rd’s holy presence. They are struck with fear, and plead with Moshe to be their mediator lest they perish before the presence of G-d. So profound was this encounter, that the Rambam remarks that after the reading of the second commandment that “you are to have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3), the people literally began falling backward in fear, and to tremble, and sought to stand far off at a distance (Ex. 20:18). Hearing this Torah and the L-rd’s words of instruction, the children of Israel were overwhelmed, not only with the greatness of their G-d but also the depth of their own need and sin.
Yet it is in the giving of the Aseret Hadiberot that we most clearly see the mercy of Adonai who as Avinu (our Father) would not allow us to go without His loving care and instruction.Â My Christian friends from seminary might see a disconnect from their own ministries and lives when it comes to teaching from the Tanakh, but Messianic Jews, and like-minded Gentile believers, see that the Law of Adonai is not a burden one must bear but in fact our liberation and deliverance! It is therefore through the keeping of the mitzvot (commands) of Adonai that we prosper and are likewise enriched, in that they are offered for both our good and our protection.
It is noteworthy, however, that the children of Israel standing at Mt. Sinai were gripped with fear when they heard the voice and instruction of Adonai and pleaded for Moshe to be their mediator and advocate to the Father. In the same way, we too now have a mediator greater than Moshe, Yeshua our Messiah, who daily makes intercession for us (1 Tim. 2:5, Rom. 8:34). It is in Yeshua our Messiah that we (both Jew and Gentile) can therefore ascend to the Mountain of the L-rd, and as that Kingdom of Priests approach the Holy One without shame or fear, because it is on him, our Passover Lamb, that our shame has been laid. Therefore let us today, with our ancestors of old, declare with one voice to Yeshua our Messiah, Yes, L-rd, all that you have commanded us, we shall do!