Yitro by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

The Israelites at Sinai: Three Possible Scenarios

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Scene: The Theophany at Mt. Sinai. Thunder and Lightning. The people fear, and stand afar off, able to “hear” the lightning and “see” the thunder. A gigantic Black Cloud settles over the mountain, and all hear the sound of a Shofar blowing—only, unlike a human ba’altekiah (Master of Shofar-Blowing), the sound, instead of starting off strong and growing weaker, starts off quietly and waxes louder and louder. The People crowd up against a barricade that Moses has set for them. Off to one side are two anonymous Israelites, Pedahtzur ben Sh’day-oor and Avi-koach ben Nissim, nervous and apprehensive about what will happen.

Scenario 1: I Reserve the Right to Doubt the Torah

The Voice of God: I am the Lord thy God, Who brought you out of Egypt, out of the House of Bondage.

Moses (to the People): Will you accept the laws and ordinances which the Lord God of Hosts places upon you?

The People: We will do the mitzvote, and we will understand by doing.

Pedahtzur: Wait a minute—I don’t agree! What say you, Avi-koach?

Avi-Koach: I say—I say—I would like a few days, or a week, to think this over. Yes, a week—or two.

Moses: Never before has a God spoken from the midst of a cloud to His people, as does this One. What say you, Israelites? Will you accept the laws, ordinances, stipulations, and later Talmudic enlargements on the basic Torah?

The People: We will. We will remain faithful to our Covenant with God, O’ Moses!

Pedahtzur: But not me—never me! I will not accept the Torah—I must read it through in its entirety, and then, make up my mind!

Moses: That will take the rest of your life. You are but one individual Israelite. Decide! Will you accept it now, or no? Choose!

Avi-Koach: I cannot choose so quickly; like my friend Pedahtzur, I must read the Book through. I may follow this mysterious God, but will promise Him nothing—until I understand Him more closely, and have a chance to study His Torah.

Scenario 2: Who are You, Anyway?

God: You shall have no graven images, or other gods, before Me. I, only I, am the One whom you shall worship.

The People: We join with the chain of tradition, going back to Abraham and Sarah, and heartily embrace Your commandments, O’ God.

Safek ben Sefaykah (The Doubter, the Questioner): I will do no such thing! I reserve the right of independent thought! Who are You, anyway?

God: I repeat: I am the Lord your God, Who brought you out of the House of Bondage….

Safek: Yes, I heard all that. But telling me Your actions does not reveal to me Your essential nature. Are you the Prime Cause?

God: I am the Lord Who fights your battles, who judges you. I am not yet as merciful or compassionate as you might like, but I am working on it.

Safek: Not compassionate? How can You call Yourself a God of Mercy, if you are judgmental only?

God: I will not suffer anyone to steal, to lie, to commit adultery….

Safek: Well, I can agree with that—but I still do not understand Your basis for existence. Again I ask: who are You? Are You Science or Superstition?

God: I am the first to be, though never did I begin.

Safek: That is a logical impossibility. I am a pragmatist; I believe only in that which one can smell, taste, swallow, or otherwise reason about.

God: I can see that this will take a while, Safek—

Safek: Take as much time as You need.

Scenario 3: God Lifts up Sinai Over the Israelites’ Heads, Threatening to Crush Them

God: Will you people accept My laws?

Israelites: We will perform Your laws, and afterwards understand why. Are we allowed to question them?

God: Wait a bit: there! (He lifts up Sinai, and holds it over the heads of the Israelites). Now, question as you wish, only make it quick. This mountain is heavy, even for Me.

Israelites: God! Will You slay the innocent with the guilty? Don’t we have a Covenant? Aren’t You supposed to protect us?

God: I am putting all of that on hold. If you accept the Torah, well and good; otherwise, here will be your graves.

(The Israelites are silent; some decide to perform the laws, some not. The Mountain remains suspended over them then, now, and for all time.)


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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