Vaetchanan: Moses Climbs Mt. Sinai By Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Vaetchanan (ואתחנן)
Torah: Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1 – 40:26

“The day you stood before the LORD your GOD at Mt. Horeb, He said to me, ‘Gather the people to Me, that they may hear My words.’ …The mountain burned with flames to the skies, and was dark with storm clouds. The Lord spoke to you out of the fire; you heard His words, but saw nothing—you heard only a voice.”  ~Deut. 4: 10-11(translation mine)

We had had a hard going of it, after escaping slavery, leaving Egypt in chaos. And it was the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey: the sands deep and the sun sharp, the very dog days of summer.

There were times I regretted the coolness of my father Pharaoh’s palace, its slopes and terraces, and the slim-waisted houris bringing us sherbet. Instead, my people grumbled and cursed; several ran away, and died alone in the wilderness; the vultures would pick at them, and we would come upon the whitening bones bleaching in the sunlight, the grinning skulls saying silently,

“Why do you bother, Moses? These people do not deserve this harsh, judgmental God. There is no great Law to be given. They are trapped in the desert; the wilderness has locked them in.”

There were hostile tribes we were careful to avoid—the war with Amalek had slain some of our finest young men—until we finally resolved to travel at night, with the jackals baying at us from the cliffsides, as if saying, “This is all folly,” and the coyotes howling, “Fools! Return to Egypt!”

Still, I knew—for the Lord God had made it clear to me by prophecy—that a Mountain lay some distance off, and there God would make His reckoning with this stubborn, stiff-necked people. And so it was, one day: for we rounded a cliff to find twelve wells of water and seventy palm-trees…

And that showed me that God was faithful. The people drank their fill, stuffed themselves on the heavenly bread, and lay down to rest. Only later would they rise up to play—but that is another story. I left their carousing and snoring, and crept a little ways off into the desert. Joshua, bless him, insisted that he go, too, and we fetched along Calev ben Yefunneh, his best friend, his right-hand man. Truly, Joshua and Calev were inseparable! Often, they would retreat to a small tent and plan our next journey, our next battle with—whatever tribe had refused us passage. No one ever dared to disturb them.

And the prophecy said to me, in the clearest of Voices, “The time has come to ascend the Mount.”

And I hesitated—“My people are contrary and rebellious; I fear to leave them alone,” I said to the Voice.

“Aaron your brother will supervise them,” He replied, “for you alone must go up to the Mountain.”

I charged Aaron with the task, along with Chur—poor Chur!—the mob was to murder him at the Abomination of the Calf; he alone had the courage to resist them, when they forced Aaron my brother to mold and cast the idol….

After bathing myself seven times in each of the seven wells, putting on a pure-white robe, and grasping my staff, I turned to the Mountain. By this time, the people had also bathed, and they obeyed God’s instructions about staying a distance away from Sinai. I waved; they waved back, and, as I set foot onto the rocky path to the crest, I could already see Datan and Avirom, those rebel cowards, as well as Korach, calling forth the heads of the tribes—but I did not yet know what mischief they were planning.

As I continued to climb—it was not easy, for I am no youngster—I smelled, not the bonfires which my people had lit below, but a mixture of cinnamon, Malabar, and other fragrances—truly, the scent of the Garden of Eden, about which I had heard in stories, and which I had written about in the first Scroll of the Law. The combined smells and scents blew into my face and lungs, and made me dizzy; I had to sit down on a nearby rock to get my bearings, and my consciousness back—I remember lying back, and closing my eyes, “For a moment, just for a moment.”

When I opened them, the Mountain was transformed, ablaze with heavenly Power—I saw cherubim with flaming swords, sphinxes soaring and roaring fire, Ophanim wheeling and shooting off sparks and explosions of light—and, above the Mountain itself, possibly the faint and uncertain outline of—of a gigantic throne, bigger and grander than Pharaoh’s himself; larger than the bedstead of King Og of Bashan—and I heard a mighty chorus singing, “Blessed be the Glory of the Lord from His place.”

After they sang it seven times, I saw the top of the Mount split open, as it were, and comings of angels emerging—I felt myself being lifted, and placed on a rock, and saw below that each Israelite received two angels: one to lift their head to gaze at God in His glory, and the other to place its hand on their heart, so it would not stop beating from fright. And I heard—that is, I swear that I heard, nothing! Not a leaf stirred, not a grain of sand blew, not a bird chirped—but the entire World heard the awesome words, “I am the LORD your GOD, Who took you, Israel, out of the land of Egypt, to be your God….”

And a snow-white stone tablet was placed in my hands, lighter than a feather. And a sphinx flew up to me, with a stylus in its beak, while Sandalphon, a Chief of the Angels, whispered, “Write, Son of Man.”

And so, I began….


Works Cited

T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi,” in Collected Poems: 1909-1962. London: Faber & Faber, 1963.

Howard Schwartz, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism. NY: Oxford Univ. Press, 2004.


Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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